Defensemen signings highlight crazy day of deals

Updated: July 2, 2006, 1:09 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

Crazy!

That's the best word to describe the first day of the NHL's free agent season. Flush with cash, general managers around the league were quick out of the gate (the market opened at noon ET on Saturday) trying to convince their favorite free agents to sign on the dotted line. And for the most part, they weren't disappointed.

Through the first 12 hours of the free agent period, more than 30 UFAs either re-signed with their old club or agreed to terms with a new team. Most of those skaters were defensemen, who fell like dominoes in the first several hours.

AP PhotoDefenseman Ed Jovanovski opted for five years and $32.5 million from the Coyotes.

The Bruins, led by interim GM Jeff Gorton, grabbed the early headlines by inking oversized defender Zdeno Chara to a five-year, $37.5 million deal. About an hour later, the B's jumped back in the free agent pool, signing former Thrashers center Marc Savard to a four-year, $20 million contract. The Bruins are gambling that Savard's breakthrough offensive season (97 points) had more to do with his own skills than those of talented Atlanta wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa.

The Chara signing, however, received the most attention. The ex-Senator was widely viewed as the best defenseman available on the market. He turned down a final offer from Ottawa on Friday. Coincidentally (or not), new Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli -- who can't begin his new job until July 15 as part of a league-negotiated settlement between Boston and Ottawa -- is technically still the Sens' assistant GM.

So, do you think Chiarelli was happy or sad to see Chara sign with Boston? I think we can all guess the answer to that question.

With his new deal, the 29-year-old Chara becomes the second highest-paid defender in the league behind the Red Wings' four-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom. New Bruins coach Dave Lewis, who spent a lot of time standing right behind Lidstrom in Detroit, will need Chara to anchor a retooled blue line that also includes Brad Stuart, Paul Mara and David Tanabe.

Chara was just one of nearly two dozen defenders to do new deals on Saturday.

In a somewhat surprising move, Ed Jovanovski chose the Coyotes over the Panthers, signing a five-year, $32.5 million deal with Phoenix. Many observers figured that Jovanovski, 30, would return to South Florida, where he began his career. However, he might have soured on the idea after the Panthers acquired his former Canucks teammate Todd Bertuzzi in the Roberto Luongo trade on June 23. Despite his public comments to the contrary, several sources close to Jovanovski believe he wasn't anxious to continue on the same team as Bertuzzi.

Jovanovski's Team Canada teammate Rob Blake took his career full circle by signing a two-year, $12 million deal to return to the Kings. The 36-year-old Blake spent the first 10-plus seasons in LA. When the Kings figured they would lose him via free agency in 2001, they sent him to the Avalanche. Just four months after the trade, Blake helped the Avs hoist the Cup. Now, unable to get a satisfactory deal in Colorado, he returns to Southern California where he maintains a year-round home. According to one source with knowledge of the Blake situation, the Sharks also made a serious pitch to acquire the veteran defenseman.

Mike Stobe/Getty IMagesPatrick Elias, one of the most highly-sought free-agent forwards, decided to stay in New Jersey.

In Toronto, the Leafs grabbed a pair of defensemen, signing Pavel Kubina (four years, $20 million) and Hal Gill (three years, $6.3 million). Kubina, who helped the Lightning win the Cup in 2004, is a big, tough, right-shot defender who can play in all situations. The Bolts didn't want to lose the 29-year-old Czech-born defender, but they simply didn't have the cap space to keep him. The Leafs might have found one of the few bargains on this day of premium prices. A league source says that Kubina turned down more lucrative offers from St. Louis and Minnesota to sign with Toronto.

As for Gill, he found his way to the open market when the B's set their sights on Chara. The 6-foot-7 defenseman doesn't bring much offensive flash. However, Gill is a competitive guy who'll fit in nicely as the club's fourth defender behind Kubina, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle.

The new management in St. Louis made a bit of a splash by outbidding several teams for tough defender Jay McKee, who signed a four-year, $16 million contract. McKee had spent his entire career with the Sabres, who drafted him in the first round of the 1995 draft. He's known as a defensive defenseman with a knack for blocking shots. He'll help the club's rebuilding process, but they probably overpaid to get him.

The Canucks signed a similar player, inking Willie Mitchell to a four-year, $14 million deal. A late round pick (199th overall) by the Devils in 1996, Mitchell blossomed during his four-plus seasons in Minnesota. At the trade deadline, when the Wild figured they wouldn't be able to re-sign him, they moved him to the Stars. Dallas wanted to keep him, but that plan went astray when the British Columbia native accepted the offer from Vancouver.

The Stars now may have to take a run at free agents Brendan Witt or Denny Markov, who both finished last season in Nashville.

Filip Kuba, a teammate of Mitchell's with the Wild, headed south to sign a three-year deal worth $9 million with the Lightning. Kuba's departure opened the door for Minnesota to re-tool its blue line by signing smooth-skating Kim Johnsson (reportedly four years, $19.4 million) and veteran Keith Carney. The Wild must be satisfied that Johnsson is completely recovered from the concussion woes that sidelined in the second half of the season. He played just 47 games for the Flyers in '05-06. Personally, I think there's a little too much money and risk involved with this signing.

The Senators, who lost Chara and Brian Pothier (who somehow got a four-year, $10 million contract from the Caps) from their blue line, signed unheralded Joe Corvo to a four-year deal worth $10.5 million. Last season, with the Kings, the 29-year-old Corvo scored 14 goals, registered 40 points and finished with a plus-16 rating.

Ottawa GM John Muckler also addressed his goaltending situation, signing former Carolina starter Martin Gerber to a three-year deal that will pay him $11.1 million. Gerber was terrific for the Canes during the regular season, but he stumbled mightily in the playoffs. He lost his job to rookie Cam Ward, who led the Hurricanes to the Cup and was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. You have to wonder how Gerber will handle the high expectations in Ottawa. Of course, many in Canada's capital are just happy to see Dominik Hasek get his walking papers. Is this finally the end of the line for Hasek?

Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who carries $7.1 million of dead money (due to bad deals signed with Vladimir Malakhov and Alexander Mogilny last summer) on his 2006-07 cap figure, found a way to re-sign forwards Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner.

Elias turned down a significant offer from the Rangers to sign a seven-year, $42 million deal to stay in Jersey. As part of the new arrangement, Elias received a no-movement clause. That means the club can't trade him or send him to the minors during the life of the contract.

Langenbrunner also got a long-term deal, signing a five-year, $14 million contract. There had been some speculation that Langenbrunner might be on the move. But, as it turned out, he liked the idea of staying with the Devils.

The Rangers, who lost out on Elias, didn't come away with nothing on such a busy day. The Blueshirts grabbed Matt Cullen from the champion Hurricanes. They outbid the Leafs, among other teams, for Cullen, who agreed to a four-year, $11.2 million contract.

After all that, there are still some interesting players remaining on the market. Veterans like Doug Weight, Michael Peca, Bill Guerin and Brendan Shanahan remain available. That said, don't be surprised if the Blues go after Weight, the Leafs take a swing for Guerin, the Islanders try to see if Peca would like another stay on the Island and the Wings try to re-sign Shanahan.

Those moves, however, are for another day. On Saturday, in a wild day of spending, many teams re-invented themselves through free agency. Were those moves wise or wasteful? Well, if you want to find out, tune in next season.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.