Commentary

How do West teams stand up? Hawks, Sharks big winners

Updated: July 8, 2008, 8:00 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Since the start of the free-agency period (noon ET on July 1), almost 90 free agents have either signed with their previous clubs or found new homes around the NHL, signing deals that collectively will pay about $500 million well into the future.

(And that doesn't take into account the $35 million deal Jaromir Jagr signed with Russian club Avangard Omsk, although no one is really sure whether the payment will be in dollars or reindeer hides.)

[+] EnlargeSean Avery
Graig Abel/NHLI/Getty ImagesSean Avery signed a four-year, $15.5 million deal with the Dallas Stars.

When the playoffs are under way next spring, how many of these players will we remember? A half-dozen? A handful? Any?

For general managers, many of whom mortgaged millions of dollars and committed to longer terms than most marriages, they're banking on us remembering their signings fondly as their teams play long into the playoffs or hoist the Stanley Cup.

Here's a look at where the teams in the Western Conference stack up after a week of free agency, which has left the cupboard bare with the exception of a handful of players, including Mats Sundin, Pavol Demitra, Brendan Shanahan and Paul Mara. (Check out our Eastern Conference trends here.)

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks
Let's start where the big noise was made. Smart thinking suggests having more than $12 million locked up in goaltending, as the Blackhawks do after signing Cristobal Huet to a four-year, $22.4 million deal, isn't good cap management. And you know what? General manager Dale Tallon doesn't care a whit as long as Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin deliver the team enough points to get into the postseason and maybe win a round for the first time since 1996. Huet was the best goaltender on the market and was signed just slightly before Chicago brought in the top free-agent defenseman, Brian Campbell. Tallon overpaid for both; but if the emerging Hawks become a playoff team, it will be worth every penny to a long-floundering Original Six team around whom there is now a palpable buzz. Now the pressure is on everyone from Campbell to Huet to coach Denis Savard not to screw it all up. Trending: Up

Detroit Red Wings
It's hard to read anything about Detroit GM Ken Holland these days that doesn't suggest he is a hockey god among mere mortals. But it's hard to argue with the god-like notion after he signed more than useful defenseman Brad Stuart to a four-year deal at the acceptable price of $3.75 million a year when it looked like he was headed West. And then, shocker of shockers, Holland landed the top winger on the market (Marian Hossa) for one year at a bargain-basement price (relatively speaking, of course) of $7.45 million. Top that off by bringing in Ty Conklin (arguably the top backup netminder available) at a reasonable price of $750,000, and the Red Wings look ready to make a run at a title defense while keeping their future options wide open. Trending: Up

Columbus Blue Jackets
Oh, there were changes afoot in Columbus in recent days, we're certain of that. The problem is, we're just not sure this wasn't a case of shuffling the deck chairs as opposed to meaningful change. But one thing is certain: With Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche sent to the New York Rangers for two minute-eating defensemen in Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman and Mike Commodore signed to a five-year deal (a deal likely three years too long), the Blue Jackets should be more physical along the blue line and may be better able to move the puck from their own zone.

Raffi Torres joins the forward core, hoping to get his career on track after an injury-plagued 2007-08 campaign. He had 27 goals in 2005-06 for Edmonton. The team still lacks a bona fide No. 1 center to play with Rick Nash, although R.J. Umberger, acquired from Philadelphia at the draft, will likely get a chance to fulfill the role while youngster Derick Brassard learns the ropes. Another free-agent addition, Kristian Huselius, will fill Zherdev's role on the top line and power play, although one wonders if he'll enjoy playing for Ken Hitchcock any more than he did for Mike Keenan in Calgary. Trending: Sideways

Nashville Predators
Most of the heavy lifting for GM David Poile was done in the boardroom by locking up his own assets without breaking the bank, including top young defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. With the nucleus of last season's playoff team intact, Poile sat quietly while other GMs blew their financial brains out. It might not have made for headlines in Nashville, but Poile was once again the master of his team's destiny. The team may lack the stud scoring star that most of their Western Conference brethren boast (understated J.P. Dumont and captain Jason Arnott tied for the team lead with 72 points last season), but the scoring-by-committee plan should only pay more dividends as the Preds' young players mature.

Poile did trade surplus defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who has great offensive upside but didn't have room to grow along a crowded Predators blue line, to Minnesota for big forward prospect Ryan Jones and a second-round draft pick. If Steve Sullivan remains sidelined with a back injury, Poile will be looking for more offensive help between now and next spring. Trending: Sideways

St. Louis Blues
A year ago, the Blues brought in veteran sniper Paul Kariya during the offseason and re-signed veteran Keith Tkachuk to try and push St. Louis into the playoff picture after falling off the NHL map with a last-place finish in 2005-06. It didn't work, and the Blues took a step backward in 2007-08, finishing 14th in the Western Conference. That meant the Blues got another blue-chip draft prospect in big, talented defenseman Alex Pietrangelo; but as for the free-agency market, the Blues were silent. They did add netminder Chris Mason in a trade with Nashville to add goaltending depth and quickly moved to match an offer sheet made by Vancouver for David Backes to keep the forward in the fold. But a team that ranked 26th in goals per game and dead-last in power-play efficiency is hoping the answers come from within, not from the market. Trending: Down

Northwest Division

Edmonton Oilers
After being burned by the free-agent market a year ago when Michael Nylander agreed to sign with the Oilers before running away to Washington and pickup Sheldon Souray played just 26 games, Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe took a different tack this summer and may have put his team back in the playoffs as a result. Lowe acquired proven offensive defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky from Los Angeles for Jarret Stoll, dealt surplus forward Torres to Columbus for an underachieving but talented young prospect in Gilbert Brule and traded defenseman Joni Pitkanen to Carolina for top-scoring winger Erik Cole, who helped beat the Oilers in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals. Lowe lost tough defenseman Matt Greene in the Visnovsky deal, but won't miss Torres or Stoll. He also had enough energy left over to blast back at Anaheim GM Brian Burke after a year of self-imposed silence, calling Burke a "moron," among others things, to keep the NHL's version of the Hatfields and McCoys percolating. Trending: Up

Calgary Flames
A year ago, the Flames relied on the free-agent market to retool their defense under Keenan and still couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs. This summer, GM Darryl Sutter may have found a No. 1 center in Mike Cammalleri, whom he acquired from Los Angeles at the draft. There was more shuffling of various parts of the lineup, but all without making a big splash on the market. Free agents Huselius and Owen Nolan signed with Columbus and Minnesota, respectively, and Alex Tanguay ended up in Montreal through a trade that set up the Cammalleri deal. To try and fill those holes, Sutter signed a couple of useful forwards in Curtis Glencross from Edmonton and Rene Bourque from Chicago, but stayed out of the big-money action. The Flames also brought in Todd Bertuzzi, who was bought out of his contract with the Ducks. Trending: Sideways

Minnesota Wild
GM Doug Risebrough did a nice job in bringing in underappreciated scorer (and former Wild winger) Andrew Brunette on a very Wild-like three-year, $7 million deal. The Wild also added forward Antti Miettinen from Dallas and aging veteran Nolan, who can chip in some power-play time but is unlikely to break the 20-goal mark. All three will be looking to fill the void created by the departure of heavy-shooting Brian Rolston, who signed in New Jersey, and Demitra, who is unsigned but isn't likely to return. Zidlicky was acquired through trade with Nashville and has some offensive pop. Still, at best, the roster shuffling is a saw-off for the Wild; at worst, it's a minor step back for a team that has shown no ability to take the leap from competitor to contender. Trending: Sideways

Colorado Avalanche
This hasn't been the easiest of times for GM Francois Giguere. He still doesn't know if captain Joe Sakic is going to play. He can only surmise Peter Forsberg and his wonky foot are done for good. He couldn't bring No. 1 netminder Jose Theodore under contract and lost effective scorer Brunette to Minnesota. What's left? Well, in some ways, it's not pretty. Giguere signed former rookie of the year Andrew Raycroft after Toronto bought out the goalie's contract. Raycroft and Peter Budaj will presumably battle it out for the No. 1 spot next fall. That's hardly a battle of the titans, and the Avs now could have one of the worst goaltending tandems in the NHL. Giguere did add some offensive depth in the form of another Toronto castoff, Darcy Tucker. Tucker has skill, although it was sometimes in hibernation in the circus that is Toronto. He could be a pleasant surprise (he notched 18 power-play goals in 2005-06). Giguere did manage to keep defensemen John-Michael Liles and Adam Foote from hitting the market and brought in free agent Daniel Tjarnqvist for depth. Still, the goaltending looms as a major issue, as does the specter of playing without Sakic for the first time since 1988-89, when the franchise was still in Quebec City. Trending: Down

Vancouver Canucks
We get that Rome wasn't built in a day and we applaud the gutsy, if not over-the-top, two-year, $20 million offer Sundin is ignoring. But the bottom line is, a Canucks team that failed to qualify for the playoffs last spring is even further from being a contender than it was when new GM Mike Gillis took over. Captain Markus Naslund bolted for the New York Rangers. Gillis did a nice job in adding big, talented winger Steve Bernier from Buffalo, but Bernier is just 23, and if he's expected to jump onto the No. 1 line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, that's quite a leap of faith. Center Kyle Wellwood, who wasn't offered a qualifying deal by Toronto and signed with Vancouver, is another reclamation project, but he does have terrific skills. For better or worse, Wellwood looks like the Canucks' No. 2 center. Ryan Johnson and Darcy Hordichuk give the Canucks more of what they already had: third- and fourth-line grit. Gillis keeps saying he's not done yet, but unless he pulls the proverbial rabbit from his hockey helmet, the Canucks are in for a long 2008-09 season. Trending: Down

Pacific Division

San Jose Sharks
If the expectation meter went through the roof in Chicago, the Blackhawks still have nothing on the San Jose Sharks, who have been living on expectation and not much else the past three seasons. After being bumped in the second round for the third straight postseason, GM Doug Wilson canned coach Ron Wilson and installed rookie bench boss Todd McLellan. Wilson then spent some more of the team's future, sending a first-round pick and a top prospect (Ty Wishart, a big defenseman who was the Sharks' 16th overall pick in the 2006 draft) to Tampa for puck-moving specialist Dan Boyle and veteran defenseman Brad Lukowich. Both won a Cup with Tampa in 2004. The acquisitions came a day after the Sharks signed free agent Rob Blake, who is fourth in all-time scoring among active defensemen, to a one-year deal worth $5 million. To clear some cap space, Wilson dealt Craig Rivet, brought in at the 2007 trade deadline at the cost of another prospect and first-round pick, to Buffalo. On paper, the revamped blue line puts the Sharks back into contending status, but that's a familiar refrain in Silicon Valley. Trending: Up

Dallas Stars
We scoffed when GM Doug Armstrong was shown the door and Brett Hull joined Les Jackson as co-GM of the Dallas Stars last season. But the pair has done a nice job of building the Stars back into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in short order. They kept busy this offseason, adding a nice, if combustible, piece to their lineup in forward Sean Avery. Hull's former teammate in Detroit inked a four-year, $15.5 million deal. If Avery can do what he did in New York -- unsettle opposing players while producing a surprising amount of offense -- the Stars should challenge San Jose and Anaheim for the Pacific Division crown next season. The Stars were the surprise of this past postseason, upsetting Anaheim and San Jose before bowing out to Detroit in six in the Western Conference finals. The Avery deal may have been their only key free-agent move, but in these matters, it's often quality, not quantity. Trending: Up

Los Angeles Kings
The Kings keep getting younger and younger, which means they are still a few light years away from being a contending team. Still, GM Dean Lombardi appears to have a plan. Now, if he only had a coach. After striking out in his attempts to hire top junior coach Pete DeBoer, who landed in Florida, it's believed Lombardi will hire Mike Johnston, who was an assistant to departed coach Marc Crawford. Not surprisingly, the rebuilding Kings weren't active on the free-agent market, building through trades in which they shed veteran defenseman Visnovsky, who is owed $28 million over the next four years, in exchange for Stoll and Greene. He also brought in one-time big hitter Denis Gauthier from Philadelphia after Gauthier had been banished to the AHL last season by the Flyers. Gauthier will get a chance to play a leadership role on the blue line now that Blake is gone. Greene will add size and toughness to a talented young defensive group that includes Jack Johnson, Tom Preissing, Kevin Dallman and, perhaps, Drew Doughty, the No. 2 pick in June's draft. Trending: Sideways

Phoenix Coyotes
Strange goings-on in the desert. After adding Olli Jokinen via a draft weekend deal with Florida to give them much-needed size and skill down the middle, the Coyotes added a trio of ruffians in Brian McGrattan, Todd Fedoruk and Francis Lessard to go with tough-as-nails forward Daniel Carcillo. We understand getting players to help protect young franchise center Kyle Turris, but didn't anyone in Phoenix get the memo that it's speed and skill that wins now? GM Don Maloney did add some defensive help via free agency by signing Kurt Sauer and David Hale to plug the significant hole left by the departure of Keith Ballard and, to a much lesser degree, Nick Boynton in the Jokinen deal. For a team that surprised many by hanging tough for the first two-thirds of the 2007-08 season, the pressure will be on Jokinen to deliver if the Coyotes are to sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Trending: Sideways

Anaheim Ducks
These haven't been the easiest of times for Burke. His boss, Ducks owner Henry Samueli, has been suspended indefinitely by the NHL after acknowledging financial wrongdoing connected to his communications company. Burke was forced to buy out Bertuzzi after signing him to a two-year, $8 million deal last offseason. He was called a "moron" by rival GM Lowe. Still, not all is dark in Duckland. Burke, who has been long rumored to be on his way to Toronto at the end of the coming season when his contract terminates with the Ducks, re-signed top offensive star Corey Perry to a five-year deal and was able to secure the services of Hall of Fame-bound defenseman Scott Niedermayer before the start of the season instead of midway through the campaign like in 2007-08. Still, the team lacks enough offense to compete with the other big boys in the West and Burke would like to move defenseman Mathieu Schneider to rectify that situation. Trending: Down

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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