Dustin Byfuglien played forward for the Blackhawks in the playoffs last season and made a big splash, but the Thrashers put him back on defense this season. (Getty Images)
The NHL’s off-season acquisition game is fraught with peril. Take a look at my worst free agent signings of the summer of 2008 and you’ll see that two (Wade Redden and Mike Commodore) are now playing in the American League; two (Michael Ryder and Bryce Salvador) have been candidates to have their salaries dumped in the AHL; and Ron Hainsey will earn $4.5 million this year to produce a projected nine points.
The summer of 2010 seems to be no different, with Sergei Gonchar and Derek Boogaard’s free-agent deals now held up for rightful ridicule. But that doesn’t mean GMs don’t sometimes bring in the right people. With that in mind, let’s look at the NHL’s Top 10 off-season acquisitions (including signings and trades):
The 30-year-old Leopold never has lived up to his full potential in his first seven NHL seasons, but appears to be a solid fit for the Sabres. Signed to a three-year, $3-million-per-season contract on the first day of free agency, Leopold now leads Buffalo in time-on-ice average (23:44); is a relatively decent minus-5 on a disappointing Sabres team; and with 10 goals and 26 points in 45 games, he is on track to smash his old records for goals (11) and points (33).
One of the many veterans dealing with a salary squeeze, Halpern had to wait until September before agreeing to a one-year, $600,000 deal with the Canadiens. In 47 games with the Habs, the 34-year-old already has 19 points, matching his total in 71 games last season with the Lightning and Kings. He’s also on pace to finish with five game-winning goals, which would tie his career high set with the Capitals in 2000-01.
Meszaros still isn’t on pace to break the 30-point plateau as he did for three straight seasons in Ottawa, but he’s playing 20 minutes a game and currently leads the Flyers, and the league, with a plus-29 rating. Last season in Tampa Bay, he was a minus-14.
Leafs GM Brian Burke took a flier on a handful of young forwards in the summer, including Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong. But nobody thought the 25-year-old MacArthur, the third member of that group, would be leading the team in point production (14 goals and 37 points in 44 games) and be on course for 68 points. That’s nearly double his previous career-best of 35 points from last season.
If the value of a player can be measured by the drop in performance of the team he leaves, Lydman was more of an influence in Buffalo than a lot of folks suspected. The Sabres deeply miss his steadying influence on the blueline, while the Ducks (who signed him to a three-year, $9-million contract) now depend on him for smart positional play. The 33-year-old is a team-best plus-25 this season and has 19 points in 45 games; if he keeps that pace up, the Finn also will finish with a career-best 32 points.
Ladd has quickly made himself a franchise cornerstone this season. The 25-year-old is now Atlanta’s captain; is tied for the team’s goal-scoring lead; and is on course to set new career marks in goals, assists and points.
Martin doesn’t need to justify his five-year, $25-million contract by piling up points. As was the case with Lydman, look at the team Martin left (New Jersey) in the summer to see how valuable he was and is. The Devils defense is porous without the 29-year-old, while Martin has solidified the Penguins defense corps – he leads the team in average shifts per game (26.5) and is second only to Kris Letang in average time on ice per game – and helped make Pens fans forget the departure of Sergei Gonchar.
Many believed the Blues committed grand larceny when they traded prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz to Montreal for Halak, who was just coming off one of the greatest playoff performances by a goalie in NHL history. Those people appear to be right; Halak has delivered as advertised for St. Louis, keeping them in the playoff hunt even as their lineup was decimated by injuries. With apologies to Ty Conklin, the Blues couldn’t afford to have Halak out of the lineup.
The Canucks lead the NHL in faceoff percentage this year with a 55.6 percent efficiency. That is in large part due to the signing of Malhotra (to a three-year, $7.5-million deal). Some thought that was an overpayment, but Malhotra’s dazzling 62.6-percent efficiency on faceoffs makes it justifiable on its own. Don’t believe for a second the Sharks (Malhotra’s employers last season) aren’t missing that.
Speaking of stolen deals, Thrashers GM Rick Dudley should be a contender for NHL executive of the year based on the Byfuglien and Ladd trades alone. Converting Byfuglien, 25, from a forward back into a blueliner was a masterstroke by coach Craig Ramsay – and the results of it have the massive former Blackhawk leading Atlanta in goals (16), points (41) and game-winning goals (six). All the Thrashers had to give up was the 24th and 54th overall picks in the 2010 draft, and forwards Marty Reasoner, Jeremy Morin, and Joey Crabb. Astonishing.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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