Free agency's winners and losers
If there is a new mantra for teams in the retooled NHL, it is one borrowed from the Jurassic period: Evolve or die.
From buyouts to the entry draft to the opening of the wildest free-agency period in the history of the NHL, teams have been laid bare, forced from the shadows of checkbook-dominated team-building.
Some teams were ready and seized the moment; others provided a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, while still others seemed paralyzed by the entire proceedings.
Using our very sophisticated best-of-five-pucks rating system, here is a look at how teams have fared in preparing for the new NHL dawn now that the free-agency bazaar has slowed save for the remainder bins.
5 (Excellent) --
1 (Poor) --
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim
Quibble with GM Brian Burke for taking Bobby Ryan over Jack Johnson with the second pick in the draft, but the Ducks will be for real when the season starts thanks to Burke's deft handling of the Scott Niedermayer negotiations. Don't know whether J.S. Giguere can play goal with regular equipment, but the Ducks once again should be a destination for California sports fans.
The Thrashers needed help down the middle, and they got it in spades with playoff warrior Bobby Holik, a two-time Cup winner. Lost in the lockout haze was the fact the Thrashers bolstered their defense before the labor stoppage by adding Jaroslav Modry and Niclas Havelid to an already mammoth defensive unit. If netminder Kari Lehtonen is half as good as scouts say he is, the Thrashers will be a playoff force.
GM Mike O'Connell started with nothing and within a matter of days built a team that has the makings of a Cup contender. Yes, O'Connell got jobbed when Mike Modano went back to Dallas at the last minute, but he still has a lineup that includes new faces Brian Leetch, Dave Scatchard, Alexei Zhamnov, Glen Murray, Shawn McEachern and Brad Isbister. Whether these players can be molded into a true team will be the challenge for sophomore coach Mike Sullivan. And, of course, there's the small matter of his unhappy captain, Joe Thornton.
In spite of all Darryl Sutter's protestations that the Flames would be lucky just to re-sign their restricted free agents, the 2003-04 Western Conference champions secured their position as the team to beat in the West by returning their veterans, including captain Jarome Iginla, who signed a three-year deal, then adding offensive threat Tony Amonte and hard-nosed three-time Cup-winner Darren McCarty.
Defensemen Oleg Tverdovsky and Mike Commodore and mid-level forward Cory Stillman represent small steps for a team that has a long way to go. But if recent free-agent signee Ray Whitney returns to 70-point form, the Canes have an outside chance at the playoffs.
We would have given new GM Dale Tallon full marks if he'd pulled off his plan to bring Modano to Chicago. He couldn't do it, so the team still lacks a veteran offensive presence. Still, Tallon's addition of Nikolai Khabibulin is one of the coups of the offseason. Defenseman Adrian Aucoin might finally get the recognition he has been denied toiling in the obscurity of Long Island, while Martin Lapointe and Jaroslav Spacek are nice additions to a team that should be in the thick of the playoff hunt after missing six of the last seven postseasons. The fact the Hawks overpaid for all of these players is moot if the offseason moves help draw fans back to the once-fabled franchise.
Give up Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote and replace them with Pierre Turgeon and Patrice Brisebois? Yikes. Yes, there's still Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk, but who's going to play net? How the mighty will fall.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Bringing in Adam Foote was a stroke of genius for a team that simply must make the playoffs if president and GM Doug MacLean is going to keep his job. Bryan Berard is a nice addition, as is former Ottawa backup netminder Martin Prusek, who could end up playing more nights than you might imagine in Columbus. Playoffs aren't a guarantee, but the Blue Jackets are a whole lot closer than they were two weeks ago.
It was a battle, but GM Doug Armstrong brought Mike Modano back to the fold, along with defenseman Sergei Zubov. Still, this is a team with little depth and the potential to underachieve once again. In the new Western Conference, underachieving means being out of the playoffs.
Detroit Red Wings
Got to hand it to GM Ken Holland, even with major salary-cap woes, he manages to return Steve Yzerman, Mathieu Schneider and Chris Chelios. If he had a No. 1 goaltender, we'd be prepared to make the Wings favorites in the West. That's a big if.
The Oilers land the big man in Chris Pronger, a former Hart Trophy and Norris Trophy winner, then bring in former Selke Trophy winner Michael Peca, while giving up pieces they've been trying to part with for several years. With emerging goaltending talents Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen sharing duties, the Oil should be playoff bound. All of a sudden, the battle of Alberta has real meaning.
Was anyone surprised GM Mike Keenan took a run at the oldest free agents around? No. Was anyone surprised Keenan also took a run at the free agents with the most character and playoff grit? No. If Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Martin Gelinas can stay healthy, the Panthers make a huge jump up the Eastern Conference standings and could challenge for the Southeast Division crown.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have quietly remade themselves into a playoff contender with an interesting blend of pieces that includes gifted scorer Pavol Demitra and rambunctious veteran Jeremy Roenick. Watch for former AHL goaltender of the year Jason Labarbera, a free-agent signing, to push incumbent No. 1 netminder Mathieu Garon.
Didn't the Wild get the memo that the lockout was over? In the new NHL, those that don't step forward are left behind. See ya.
If the NHL makes good on its promise to open up the game, the Habs' signing of gifted Russian Alexei Kovalev to a four-year deal might be the move of the offseason. Throw in speedy Mathieu Dandenault, a scoring forward converted to a defenseman under Scotty Bowman in Detroit, and Montreal has all kinds of tools and should be considered a top contender in the Eastern Conference.
OK, so GM David Poile got handed Paul Kariya's stats from 1995-96 and promptly handed the former Mighty Ducks star $4.5 million a year for two years. It won't seem like wasted money if Kariya returns to form in the new, open NHL. Smooth as silk, Kariya has the potential to put up 80 points or more, a nice complement to equally diminutive Steve Sullivan. Tough-as-nails defenseman Danny Markov, added via trade with Philadelphia, is the yin to Kariya's classy yang.
New Jersey Devils
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello outbids the competition and still loses out on Bobby Holik and Scott Niedermayer. Still, shrewd, unflappable Lamoriello rebounded to re-sign Brian Rafalski and shore up his blue line with enigmatic Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis. If there is one constant in the NHL, it is never count the Devils out.
New York Islanders
Given that few players consider Long Island a destination location, GM Mike Milbury did well to plug some of his many holes with Miroslav Satan and Alexei Zhitnik. Still, plugging holes is one thing, building a playoff team is quite another, and Milbury isn't quite there yet.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are trapped between being a big-market power and building from the ground up, which explains the signings of injury-prone Martin Straka, mercurial Ville Nieminen and aging Martin Rucinsky, among other second-tier free agents. Kevin Weekes better get used to a ton of rubber being tossed his way in the Rangers' net.
The Senators had some cap room, but GM John Muckler was surprisingly idle, especially given what is a long-standing leadership vacuum in the Sens' dressing room. The Senators remain a strong, talented club, but missed a chance to keep up with Cup-contending Philadelphia and will open the season once again looking for that Gary Roberts-type presence on and off the ice.
Let's see. Best player in the world? Check. Two tough, towering defensemen? Check. Check. GM Bob Clarke outdid himself by signing Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje to complement a well-rounded, talented cast. No other team has adjusted to the new system better or more quickly.
Now that the Coyotes have hired the greatest player ever to be their coach, it might be nice if close friend and GM Mike Barnett found someone to play net for the desert dogs.
GM Craig Patrick can't take credit for the luck of the draw that landed Sidney Crosby in his lap, but he certainly took advantage of that good fortune to woo top free agents Sergei Gonchar and Ziggy Palffy. His signing of Mark Recchi before the lockout was another shrewd move as the Penguins have quickly remade themselves into a playoff-ready team. If, as expected, they add a veteran netminder such as Sean Burke or Curtis Joseph, the sky is the limit.
St. Louis Blues
Give GM Larry Pleau credit for making the best of a bad situation as he defied critics by signing Chris Pronger to a qualifying offer, then dealt the former league MVP to Edmonton for former Canadian Olympian Eric Brewer plus two prospects. Still, this is a team that will struggle to make the playoffs and could be shopping Doug Weight by the middle of the season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Talk about an about-face for the former big spenders.
San Jose Sharks
Yes, the Sharks have built a contender without overspending, and they did take a strong run at Scott Niedermayer, though they came up empty. But a veteran scoring presence, and there were lots of them on the market, might have been nice.
Tampa Bay Lightning
GM Jay Feaster didn't have much to work with, given that his focus was on trying to reassemble his Stanley Cup-winning squad plus stay within a restrictive budget imposed by ownership. Losing Nikolai Khabibulin wasn't a surprise, but it still hurts, big-time. John Grahame will need help between the pipes. Still, the Bolts will be well-poised to make a run at a Cup defense with their talented cast.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Well, at least Tie Domi fans are happy. But that's about the sum of the joy in Leaf Nation in what has been an eye-opening journey through free agency. Outbid by Florida for former Leafs Nieuwendyk and Roberts, Toronto signed Jason Allison in the hopes the big center can regain the form that made him one of the top point producers of his generation. But this is a team held together by maybes and what-ifs, and that's a hard way to make the playoffs in this new NHL.
It has taken all of GM Dave Nonis' savvy to return captain Markus Naslund and quality center Brendan Morrison. The big question now is what of Todd Bertuzzi. Rumors abound that the vilified power forward wants out. If that's the case, getting value in return will be another key test for Nonis. As usual, the Canucks appear ready to pin their Cup hopes on mediocre goaltending.
You still here? Hello? Hello? Anyone in there?
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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