Term's the word for top-end free agents this offseason
The buzzwords at the start of the annual free-agent rodeo weren't necessarily "how much" but "how long."
Although it's true GMs continue to spend in a fashion very reminiscent of drunken pre-lockout spending orgies, the real twist on the free-agent game this summer is the term top-end players are commanding before they'll sign on the dotted line.
In recent days, Philadelphia signed Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell to six-year deals, but that was just a precursor to the big deals of the free-agent season that began at noon ET on Sunday as the Flyers signed Daniel Briere to an eight-year deal worth $52 million.
"I don't know where people are coming up with those numbers," added one GM, talking in terms of both the average cap hit of the Briere deal ($6.5 million) and the length of the deal.
Although this GM said he thought Briere was worth closer to $5 million a year, he acknowledged that with the number of teams believed to be interested in the slick center reaching double digits, it was the security the Flyers offered that was the deciding factor.
"Under the cap system you have to be a little bit creative," Briere's agent, Pat Brisson, told ESPN.com on Sunday night.
For instance, Briere nearly signed a seven-year deal with the Flyers, but they wanted to spread the cap hit over an extra year.
"It worked out. They're getting a great player," Brisson said.
Not surprisingly, there was a domino effect after the Briere deal.
Gomez signed a seven-year deal worth $51.5 million, and Drury, perhaps the most complete player of the three, signed on with the Blueshirts for five years at a little more than $7 million per season.
The problem with seven- or eight-year deals (or the five-year deal signed by defenseman Brian Rafalski in Detroit or the five-year deal tendered to Cory Sarich by Calgary or the five-year deal Jason Blake got from Toronto, for that matter) is that these deals might inhibit the natural development of young players. How? Because teams have few options with these veteran players during the final years of these deals when their usefulness, especially as it relates to the amount of money they're earning, is waning.
Many of these players have no-trade or no-movement clauses, which simply preclude them from being sent to the minors, and their dollar value makes them almost untradable.
There's also the issue of teams' inability to make moves going forward, including next season, when there is expected to be an even better bumper crop of free agents, possibly including Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, among others.
And if you've locked into a Briere-like deal this year, that makes it difficult to make another big splash next year.
Here's a look at some of the other major transactions from Day 1 of the free-agent season:
Centers of attention
As it turned out, Gomez didn't have to travel far to make the first move of his NHL career. After spending seven seasons in New Jersey, Gomez crossed the river into Manhattan, where he signed a seven-year deal with the Rangers worth $51.5 million. Then, a short while later, word surfaced that Drury also had signed with New York, this one a five-year pact worth $35.25 million.
The addition of both Gomez and Drury also enhances the possibility Brendan Shanahan will return for a second season in Gotham. Lacking depth down the middle, Shanahan never got into an offensive groove last season.
Drury is a proven winner and leader, so the big question surrounds Gomez, who has scored fewer than 20 goals in six of his seven NHL seasons. Can he blossom in a more creative offensive system? How will Gomez, used to playing in front of sparse crowds in New Jersey, react when/if the Madison Square Garden boobirds get on him?
The Rangers have gambled a lot of money and a lot of years that Gomez is the real deal.
Great Scott! A stand-in
Guess Anaheim GM Brian Burke didn't think the Scott Niedermayer retirement talk was just idle offseason chatter. Hedging against the possibility the Conn Smythe Trophy winner and four-time Stanley Cup champion will decide to hang up the blades, Burke boldly went out and signed arguably the best all-around defenseman on the market -- former Detroit rear guard Mathieu Schneider.
Although Sheldon Souray's offensive numbers are gaudier (he had 64 points to Schneider's 52 last season), Schneider is a gifted skater, possesses an underrated shot and has become a nice fit in the dressing room. Durability might be an issue. He has played in 80 games just once since breaking in with Montreal in 1989-90. Still, if Niedermayer does retire, Schneider provides a nice facsimile for the defending Stanley Cup champs, who will pay him $11.25 million over two years.
If Niedermayer does return, Burke will have committed $20.15 million to four defensemen next season (Niedermayer, Schneider, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin). That's more than 40 percent of the $50.3 million salary cap on four players. As one agent suggested, that's a cap "nightmare."
No flies on those Wings
Anyone wonder why the Detroit Red Wings are consistently one of the top teams in the NHL? It's because they're a team with a plan, whether it's Plan A or Plan B.
When Schneider bolted to Anaheim, GM Ken Holland switched gears and signed the next best thing to Schneider on the market: Rafalski. It will be interesting to see whether Rafalski, a fine puck mover in his own right, will see his numbers approach those of Schneider (157 points over the past three seasons in Detroit) playing in a more up-tempo system.
Given that Rafalski had 140 points over the past three years as a Devil, the answer would appear to be a resounding "yes." Once again, the Red Wings will begin the season as legitimate Cup contenders.
Give me term or give me death
Although the phones were lighting up like Christmas trees in agent Pat Brisson's office in California as teams were clamoring to talk about Briere, the call that got through was one from Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren.
In the end, it wasn't the money that was the turning point for Briere but the term, as Holmgren signed Briere to an eight-year deal worth $52 million. That works out to a cap hit of $6.5 million per year.
In theory, Briere, who had 95 regular-season points and led the Sabres in playoff scoring with 15 points in 16 games, could have garnered more than $7 million per year with a shorter deal; but he chose to sign a deal that essentially will take him to (or close to) the end of his career.
Briere, who will be 30 in October, joins close friend and former Buffalo teammate Martin Biron in Philadelphia, where the Flyers are poised, at least on paper, to return to Stanley Cup contention. With Briere, top defenseman Timonen, up-and-coming two-way player Hartnell, youngsters Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Joffrey Lupul, along with proven veterans Jason Smith, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble, the Flyers also should be back in the hunt for an Atlantic Division crown.
Speaking of the Sabres, all is not sweetness in the Queen City. After being the toast of the border town the past two seasons, the Sabres have quickly fallen back into the miserly mode that made them poster boys for the league's financial inequities in pre-lockout days.
With a salary cap in place, there is little reason for a team like Buffalo to watch top free agents such as Jay McKee, Mike Grier, Briere and Drury depart. True, the Sabres are still deep and talented. But after reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and winning the Presidents' Trophy last season before being stunned by Ottawa in five games in the Eastern Conference finals this year, this team suddenly finds itself with a serious leadership vacuum.
Drury and Briere both rose to prominence after coming to Buffalo and left as the team's co-captains. Losing one might have been understandable, given the dollars and term being thrown about, but to lose both calls into question the team's strategy for building a Cup winner. As for the two-season love-in with fans? Well, consider it officially over.
Avs add toughness
It took until the early morning hours of Day 2 of the free-agent period, but the Colorado Avalanche filled two significant needs in their lineup by adding a rock-solid defenseman in Scott Hannan and a gritty, battle-tested forward who will create havoc in front of opposing nets in the form of the highly coveted Ryan Smyth.
Hannan signed a four-year, $18-million deal, while Smyth, who'd seen a decade-long run with Edmonton come to an end over failed contract talks last February, signed a five-year deal worth $31.25 million.
Smyth was seen as one of the top four free-agent forwards available behind the three centers (Briere, Drury and Gomez). He will never score as much as a player averaging more than $6 million a year in salary should score, but he brings those crucial intangibles like work ethic and fearlessness that Avs GM Francois Giguere hopes will rub off on a talented cadre of forwards including Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski.
Smyth's relationship with Colorado captain Joe Sakic was key in separating Colorado from the pack. If there is a danger in signing Smyth to a five-year deal, it's that his rambunctious style may see the 31-year-old start to break down in the final years of the deal; but that's the risk all GMs take with offering long-term deals to players who may already be at the peak of their talents.
Hannan joins a defensive lineup that already features top young defenders John-Michael Liles, Jordan Leopold and Kurt Sauer. All in all, the Avs should be right back in the playoff mix next season after last year's uncharacteristic absence.
Blues back in business?
Like Colorado, the St. Louis Blues are in foreign territory, having missed the playoffs two straight seasons after a pro sports-record 25 straight postseason appearances. Like Colorado, the Blues appear to be back in the playoff mix, at least on paper, following the surprising signing of veteran offensive force Paul Kariya.
The former Canadian Olympian has now made two surprising free-agent moves since the end of the lockout, having signed on with Nashville for the past two seasons where he played every game and chipped in 161 points. Kariya, who signed a three-year deal worth an average of $6 million a year, is as shrewd a player as there is on and off the ice. His decision to join the rebuilding Blues suggests they're closer than people think.
Penguins take another step ... and another
Not content to rest on their laurels from last season when they surprised most observers by finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to build into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
As Day 1 of the free agency period dissolved into Day 2, the Penguins added veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, a Cup winner with both Dallas and Tampa Bay, and then streaky forward Petr Sykora, who once upon a time won a Cup with the New Jersey Devils. Both inked two-year deals.
Sykora had 22 goals with Edmonton last season, but his production tailed off dramatically during the second half of the season. Still, he will provide a nice compliment to young forwards Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Sidney Crosby, and gives the Pens an impressive blend of forwards with the earlier signings of Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts. Sydor, 35, will be expected to help stabilize a young defensive corps that needs to improve if the Penguins are to take the next step forward.
Speaking of the love-in being over, wonder what's going through netminder Martin Brodeur's mind as he mulls his decision to sign on with the New Jersey Devils for less than market value only to watch Scott Niedermayer sign in Anaheim two summers ago and see Rafalski and Gomez jump ship Sunday. What's left? Well, at the rate the Devils are going, a lottery pick in next year's draft.
A winger for Sundin?
With his job apparently hanging by a thread, GM John Ferguson is building a Toronto Maple Leafs squad for the here and now, future be damned.
After acquiring Vesa Toskala for a No. 1 draft pick at last weekend's entry draft, Ferguson acquired a front-line winger to play with captain Mats Sundin as Blake signed a five-year, $20 million deal Sunday.
Blake, who will turn 34 before the start of training camp, had a career year on Long Island with 40 goals and was a member of the U.S. Olympic team. The signing makes us wonder who will be playing for the Islanders this season. They've bought out captain Alexei Yashin, who is now an unrestricted free agent; Ryan Smyth is expected to sign elsewhere; and the Washington Capitals raided the club, signing defenseman Tom Poti and forward Viktor Kozlov. Gee, you'd think they were the Edmonton Oilers.
Red Mile ruffians?
The Calgary Flames quietly continue to retool for a run at the Cup. After hiring Mike "Lazarus" Keenan as coach, the Flames acquired former minute-muncher Adrian Aucoin from Chicago, then signed Sarich, who won a Cup in Tampa Bay in 2004, to a five-year deal worth $18 million Sunday.
The Flames, who got away from their blue-collar, hardworking personae last season, have taken significant steps toward re-establishing that personality. As for Roman Hamrlik and Brad Stuart -- two 2006-07 Flames defensemen who are unrestricted free agents -- see you later, boys.
The big boys get the ink, the dollars and the term. As it should be, perhaps. But we hark back to the summer of 2005 after the lockout. While teams loaded up on big names, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford bided his time before signing Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman late in the going. The Hurricanes, of course, won the first post-lockout Stanley Cup, proving it's often the little moves that end up paying the biggest dividends.
On Day 1 of the free-agent frenzy (a term coined by the media but not necessarily reflected in reality), we noted Rutherford's signing of Jeff Hamilton, a former Blackhawk from Englewood, Ohio, who had 18 goals in his first full NHL season. Hamilton is expected to get a chance to work the Carolina power play, perhaps on the point (Carolina ranked 25th a year ago), and he'll add depth down the middle for the manageable price tag of $800,000 per year for two years.
Other "small ball" transactions included Tampa's signing of former Pittsburgh Penguin Michel Ouellet to a two-year deal worth a total of $2.5 million. The Bolts are hoping Ouellet, who was a junior teammate of Brad Richards and who had 19 goals for the Pens last season, can help get Richards back on track next season. Ouellet had 11 power-play goals.
Another Southeast Division signing of interest was Atlanta's acquisition of former Ottawa and Minnesota pivot Todd White. White is twice a 20-goal scorer and helps alleviate some of the Thrashers' desperate need for help down the middle. White, a native of the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, has been prone to injury, missing 45 games over the past three seasons, but will be a nice addition to the Thrashers mix. Although Atlanta had to ante up in term (don't they all?), the four-year deal is a manageable $9.5 million in total.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
2007 FREE AGENCY
Free agency is open and top players are on the move. Here's a recap of what's made news so far:
• Rangers keep Shanahan
• Big-spending Rangers give Lundqvist hefty raise
• Rangers introduce Gomez, Drury
• Sakic helped lure Smyth, Hannan to sign with Avs
• Bye, Buffalo: Flyers land big free agent Briere
• Drury, Gomez both sign with Rangers
• Smyth settles with Avalanche