Fans inside the Xcel Energy Center will get to enjoy Ryan Suter and Zach Parise wearing Minnesota Wild jerseys for the next 13 years. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
The NHL’s unrestricted free agency period is well underway – and while a couple marquee names haven’t yet signed, the combinations of signings and trades already have altered the league’s landscape.
Which teams are the biggest winners and losers so far this off-season? That’s the focus of this week’s special Top 10: we’ll identify five from each category, with the caveat that the ultimate judgment on many of these moves won’t come for years.
Last summer, the Blueshirts hit the biggest off-season home run when they signed star center Brad Richards. This year, they’ve only signed fringe contributors Taylor Pyatt, Arron Asham and Micheal Haley. Of course, that could change if they can acquire an impact player such as Rick Nash or Bobby Ryan, but for now at least, the Manhattan Mashers haven’t kept up with their competitors.
Since rookie GM Marc Bergevin took the reins of power in Montreal, he’s added a potential star in first round draft pick Alex Galchenyuk, signed Brandon Prust to give the roster more edge and locked up franchise cornerstone Carey Price to a long-term contract. The Habs are far from bona fide Stanley Cup threats, but given the cavalcade of embarrassments they suffered last year, this is as good a start to the turnaround as any.
Losing legendary blueliner Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement was a massive blow to the NHL’s most successful franchise, but many thought the Wings would soften it by signing prized free agent blueliner Ryan Suter and/or Zach Parise. They failed to add either. If they don’t improve via another signing or the trade market – they’ll have only added Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo (and lost Jiri Hudler). That’s not the type of off-season Wings fans are accustomed to – and it won’t be surprising to see prognosticators project them as a borderline playoff team next year.
Picking up one of the best two-way centers in the game in Jordan Staal makes Carolina’s off-season a winner on its own. Sure, the Canes paid a steep price to get Staal (including Brandon Sutter and the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft), but even with a blueline that still isn’t the envy of many (if any) teams, the Canes will enter the 2012-13 campaign much better simply because there are now two Staals with whom to reckon.
The Ducks did well to foist the contract of defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky on the Islanders, but squandered the benefits of that move by signing soon-to-be-36-year-old defenseman Sheldon Souray to a three-year, $11-million deal. They also went off the grid in choosing Hampus Lindholm with the sixth overall pick in the draft and are believed to be in the process of trading star winger Bobby Ryan. They’re not exactly in the midst of a Titanic deck-chair reorganization, but it isn’t confidence-inspiring, either.
GM Joe Nieuwendyk assembled a patchwork team that overachieved in the minds of many last year, but now that team ownership has stabilized he’s continued to move around many parts: so far, he’s dumped Mike Ribeiro’s salary, added veteran scorers Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney and traded for Derek Roy. The best part? Nieuwendyk has surrendered virtually none of his cap flexibility. The Stars will have tens of millions in salary space even after they finalize a long-term deal for star winger Jamie Benn. Nieuwendyk is rapidly becoming one of the league’s cannier GMs.
At one point this summer, the Isles were rumored to be in the Bryce Salvador sweepstakes, which sounds about as sad as it actually is. Even then, they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay enough to stop him from re-signing with the Devils. Their total summer haul thus far includes Brad Boyes, Visnovsky and former Senators tough guy Matt Carkner. It just doesn’t get easier to be an Isles fan, does it?
Long-suffering Edmonton fans have to be stoked at their team’s reversal of fortunes. The Oilers avoided the temptation to trade down from the No. 1 overall draft pick, selected Nail Yakupov, landed a serious prize in former NCAA defenseman Justin Schultz and re-signed heart and soul Ryan Smyth to a cap-friendly, two-year contract. The additions may not vault Edmonton to the top of the Northwest Division, but given all the disappointments the team has endured since Chris Pronger’s departure, these are wonderful days indeed.
The busiest team this off-season wasn’t making moves everyone agreed with. Indeed, at a time when many strongly believe the Flames should be trading their veterans and embarking on a long-term rebuild, the Calgary brass have instead decided to double down on their veteran-laden push for a playoff spot. They threw a lot of money at defenseman Dennis Wideman and Jiri Hudler and once they pay restricted free agent center Mikael Backlund, they’ll be almost completely devoid of cap space. Oh, and they’re still in a division with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks, the rising Oilers and the vastly improved Wild. Talk about running to stand still.
Not many people thought Minnesota had the clout to land the league’s top two UFAs, but that’s just what GM Chuck Fletcher did when he signed former Devil Zach Parise and ex-Predator Ryan Suter to mammoth contracts and instantly made the Wild an emerging powerhouse. It’s great to see patient and polite Minnesotans rewarded with a win like this after dealing with the indignities of having the North Stars relocated to Dallas. This is bad news for Minny’s opponents for a long, long time.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.