Brian Campbell will ply his trade with the Blackhawks next season. (Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
Some 48 hours after the NHL’s unrestricted free agency season kicked off, the prevailing sense among hockey observers was one of utter bewilderment. For example, if Michael Ryder can receive a million-dollar raise after a 27-point drop in production, there is no predicting anymore what pressure-crazed GMs will dole out each summer.
Still, it’s not like every team in the league distributed all of its available salary cap space as if it wouldn’t be allowed to spend it in the coming weeks and months. Some franchises were thrifty for strategic reasons, while others pulled back on the purse strings with more regard for their fiscal bottom line.
How to sort out the winners and win-challenged among the spenders and misers? How about this handy ranking?
Chicago Before you bombard me with angry emails pointing out how much the Hawks overpaid Brian Campbell, let me point out that I don’t think Campbell is worth that much, either. But there’s no denying he was the top puck-moving blueliner available, just as there’s no denying that, of all the UFA goaltenders, Cristobal Huet was the one who performed best last season.
The two newest Hawks won’t always make GM Dale Tallon’s life a walk in the park – especially while goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is still on the roster – but their additions make Chicago an odds-on favorite to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. And taking the next step in a team’s evolution is what the buying of UFAs is all about.
Detroit On the first day of free agency, Ken Holland said, “Let there be a backup goaltender (Ty Conklin) and top-four defenseman (Brad Stuart) signed for a combined total of less than $5 million a season”, and lo, it was so. On the second day, He said, “Let me win a frenzied bidding derby for Marian Hossa by tendering only a one-year contract”, and lo, it, too, was so.
It’s less work to attract high-end free agents when your organization is as successful as Detroit’s, but make no mistake, there’s a fine balancing act of egos that’s a big part of the process; Holland has mastered that and deserves a lot of credit.
Edmonton Kevin Lowe’s Oilers don’t make it into the winners category based on any free agent they signed; instead, it’s the trades Edmonton’s GM made that put his franchise in a good position to end its two-season-long absence from the playoffs.
The Oilers won’t be bona fide Stanley Cup contender with former Hurricanes winger Erik Cole, former Blue Jackets prospect Gilbert Brule and ex-Kings defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky now in tow. But they almost certainly will challenge for a playoff spot – and still have some of new owner Daryl Katz’s millions to work with.
Montreal I know what you’re saying right about now: “Wait, did the Canadiens sign anybody new so far?” The answer is, no, they haven’t signed a single new player. However, once they take care of their restricted free agents, the Habs will have upwards of $8-9 million in available cap space to play with.
That means, once the regular season has started, GM Bob Gainey will be able to swoop in and pluck talented players off of teams that are struggling. When that happens, Canadiens fans will be more than pleased he decided to play it safe at the start of July.
New Jersey Yet again, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has pulled his team back from the brink of the draft lottery with the major surprise signing of Brian Rolston, a welcoming-back of Bobby Holik, as well as the retaining of key veteran Jay Pandolfo.
Rolston and Pandolfo could have signed elsewhere for greater monetary gain, but their respect for what the Devils’ Supreme Being has achieved over the years brought them in at a lower financial price tag. And because of that, the Devils will have a far easier time keeping pace in a tough Atlantic Division.
Boston Perhaps in some alternate universe, the idea of rewarding Michael Ryder for a 27-point drop in production last season with a more-than-million-dollar-a-year raise makes sense. It makes no sense in this universe, though, which is why Ryder’s three-year, $12 million deal moving him from Montreal to the Bruins was met with howls of derisive laughter anywhere it’s mentioned now.
Colorado Let’s hope Joe Sakic isn’t basing his retirement decision on whether or not Colorado’s off-season moves, because the Avs’ newest and biggest additions – Maple Leafs castoffs Andrew Raycroft and Darcy Tucker – do not exactly inspire visions of deep playoff runs.
Granted, losing Jose Theodore was very much a blessing in disguise, but even if Sakic and Peter Forsberg return, the Avs as presently constituted could face a tough battle just to secure a post-season berth.
Phoenix Don’t get me wrong – I like what Don Maloney and Wayne Gretzky are doing in the Arizona desert; I also liked the big deal they made at the draft that brings Olli Jokinen to the Coyotes.
That said, Todd Fedoruk? For three years? When you’ve already got Dan Carcillo and Brian McGrattan in the fold? Did nobody see what happened to Minnesota last season when they stocked up on tough guys?
Vancouver With relatively new ownership and a brand new GM in Mike Gillis, the idea of a fresh start had some of the more optimistic Canucks fans awaiting a flurry of new faces being brought into the organization.
Well, they’re still (a)waiting, though it’s not from lack of trying on management’s behalf. Gillis attempted to make deals at the draft, while his lucrative offer to Mats Sundin trumped all others tendered to the longtime Leafs cornerstone.
Nevertheless, the NHL is a results-oriented business – and as it currently stands, the only result of consequence made by the Canucks this off-season is the waiver-wire acquisition of Kyle Wellwood. That’s just not going to cut it, especially in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Washington The Capitals have been doing a lot of things correctly the last few years and those moves culminated in a standout late-season run to the playoffs. Nevertheless, much of that progress could be undone – or at least, stalled – by the decision to sign Jose Theodore as their No. 1 netminder.
The ex-Avs and Canadiens goalie showed flashes of his MVP-winning form last season in Colorado, but crapped out in a very visible way during the Avalanche’s second-round playoff series against the Red Wings. He represents a huge gamble for a team that was starting to resemble a sure thing.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News' online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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