Teams on the defensive early in free agency

Updated: July 14, 2006, 12:50 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

The 2005-06 NHL season was the one in which The Goal came back into the game.

Thank goodness for that.

Before that, such an emphasis had been put on defensive play and "play away from the puck" -- a euphemism for all types of interference on players who didn't have possession at the time -- that one almost expected there to be demands for penalties to be assessed to those who dared light the lamp.

Rob Blake
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesRob Blake was one of many defensemen to get a big deal via free agency.

Two minutes for going five hole, a major for top shelf.

But that changed last season, when the NHL began calling the rule book in a more realistic, intelligent way, shrunk the goalies and discounted the red line.

Good forwards, with a little more time and space, began finding the net. Often, teams could come from behind, something that had all but disappeared from the league. Fifty-goal scorers, thought to be on the verge of extinction, returned to the frozen ponds. As the regular season moved into the playoffs, the offense was curbed a bit by good goaltending and good team play, but teams could still attack with speed and creativity and reap rewards for it.

So, it would have been reasonable to expect that clubs would go out and find more offensive players this summer, if possible, attackers who could navigate the more open waterways of competition and make something big happen when they arrived at the enemy net.

At the draft in Vancouver, some talented offensive players were indeed moved. Todd Bertuzzi, Pavol Demitra and Alex Tanguay found new homes in Florida, Minnesota and Calgary, respectively, three teams that had identified scoring as an area they needed to shore up before next fall.

Another club, Dallas, decided to give up some checking to take a chance on Patrik Stefan, the first pick overall in 1999, in hopes the move might add a little pizzazz to the Stars' attack.

The trend seemed clear. Offense was what people were looking for, with more proof to come when the free-agent market opened Saturday.

So what happened? The opposite, of course.

Clubs went on a feeding frenzy for defensemen, not wingers and centers. Twenty of them moved to new clubs during the first 72 hours. A few, to be sure, were rearguards with an offensive bent, such as Rob Blake (left Colorado, signed with Los Angeles), Ed Jovanovski (Vancouver to Phoenix) and Joe Corvo (Los Angeles to Ottawa).

But the bulk of the free-agent blueliners were defensive types, shot blockers, and ornery types who'll go down to the other end and score a goal on rare occasions. Included in this group were Jay McKee, Brendan Witt, Hal Gill and Keith Carney, and most got big dollars.

Take McKee, for example. Even he was hoping, just maybe, for a payday on the order of $2.5 million per season until the St. Louis Blues offered him $16 million for four seasons. Now, he's a fine leader and one of the league's most courageous defenders, one who will throw his body in front of as many shots as required. If he were a baseball player, he'd be Ron Hunt, the old Expo who preferred a pitch off the elbow to a base hit.

But it's also fair to say McKee won't be confused with Paul Coffey any time soon. He can move the puck decently, but in 582 regular-season games, he has 17 goals. In seven of his seasons, he has scored two or fewer goals.

Still, in this new offensive era, the big payday arrived.

What made it more interesting was that experienced, productive offensive players sat around waiting until all the defensemen got signed. This included the likes of Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Jeremy Roenick, Jason Arnott and Steve Rucchin.

Those fellows finally signed, but that still left Anson Carter, Sergei Samsonov, Brendan Shanahan, Jason Allison and Eric Lindros out there looking for new contracts.

Many observers looked at the rush to sign defensemen as hockey going with the basics. As with the baseball adage that "You can never have enough pitching," men of hockey wisdom love to talk about how every team needs defensemen.

But didn't the Carolina Hurricanes just finish proving that wasn't necessarily true? Not to knock the Canes' defensive core, but in years to come, historians won't recall the group of Aaron Ward, Niclas Wallin, Mike Commodore, Bret Hedican, Frantisek Kaberle and Glen Wesley in glowing terms as one of the greatest defensive corps ever assembled.

This, ladies and gentlemen, wasn't the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s with Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. This wasn't the Colorado Avalanche of 2001 with Blake, Adam Foote and Ray Bourque, or the Detroit Red Wings of the next season, a team that lined up future Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios on the blue line.

Some suggested the Hurricanes defense was a hockey version of the famed No Name Defense that helped the Miami Dolphins to a perfect NFL season in 1972. But even that group had Nick Buoniconti, a future Hall of Famer.

Carolina, however, went with quantity and experience, and won with it. The biggest blueline star in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, Chris Pronger, played for the other team, the Edmonton Oilers.

Interestingly, albeit for different reasons, Pronger was also on the move after the season. Anaheim got him, and what did it give up? Well, a burgeoning offensive star in Joffrey Lupul, of course, a player who seemed to represent all the possibilities of offense in the "new" NHL when he scored four goals in a playoff game.

Consider this contrast.

Six-foot-9 Zdeno Chara received a package worth $37.5 million over five years from Boston for an average salary of $7.5 million. The big Slovak had 16 goals each of the past two seasons, but he's regarded primarily as a player who takes care of his own end.

Patrik Elias, by comparison, received $42 million over seven years to stay in New Jersey, an average of $6 million per season, 20 percent less per season than Chara. But Elias had a six-point game in this year's playoffs, scored 35 or more goals three times in the "old" NHL, and generally is regarded as one of the pure skill players in the league.

If offense were king, wouldn't Elias have received the bigger financial hug? The answer to all this might lie in a few factors.

First, there were more good defensemen available than good forwards. Also, some of the big-name forwards were 35 or older, and under the new collective-bargaining agreement, multiyear contracts given to those players can be very, very problematic down the line.

Even if they retire or go to the minors, every year beyond the first year of those contracts counts against your salary cap -- no matter what.

It's why Joe Sakic, who turns 37 this Friday, chose to take only a one-year deal from Colorado, and why Carolina's decision to give Rod Brind'Amour, 35, a five-year agreement was so surprising.

Part of the answer also resides in the belief of many teams that the transition game is even more important now than before, particularly without the red line. Without defensemen who possess good passing ability, it's hard even to get the engine started.

Also, the enlarged offensive zone last year (goal line closer to the end boards; neutral zone reduced) changed the way defensemen have to play inside the blue line. Simply put, they have a little more room, but with so many shot-blocking forwards out there, rearguards who can get off quick shots and get them through to the net are very useful. Plus, rearguards who can be playmakers inside the zone have added value.

Kaberle, for example, did all that very well with the Hurricanes. Bryan McCabe of the Maple Leafs flourished with the bigger zone, scored 19 goals and was rewarded with a five-year, $28.5 million contract.

Some of the free-agent emphasis on D-men was simply situational. Vancouver traded Bryan Allen, lost Jovanovski to free agency and signed Willie Mitchell to fill a void. Florida, beaten to the punch by Phoenix on Jovanovski, signed Ruslan Salei. The Ducks, without Salei's salary to consider, moved on Pronger.

So, to some degree, there was a domino effect.

Finally, you have to wonder whether many teams still harbor the suspicion that the old NHL isn't gone forever, that with all the nice compliments the league received last year, there might be the tendency to let the standard slip a little next year and let the holding, hooking and interference slip back in.

For that type of hockey, you need defensemen. Big, strapping ones who can pin forwards to the boards and hold them there.

Yikes. If that's the suspicion, let's hope it's proved wrong.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.