All right, so now that (almost) all the dust has cleared in Free Agent Frenzy 2014, here are some thoughts on Day 1 of a crazy off-season:
MOTOWN NO TOWN FOR FREE AGENTS Let me get this straight. Dan Boyle took less money and term to sign with the New York Rangers than he could have received from the Detroit Red Wings. What is this, Opposite Day?
After pretty much ruling the NHL for the past two decades, the Detroit Red Wings have fallen on hard times indeed. Remember the days when free agency would open and the Red Wings would basically open for business, basically telling whichever veterans stars they wanted that playing for the Red Wings was a privilege? The Red Wings never begged and they never got turned down.
But now they find themselves in the position where both are happening. For the Red Wings to come away with nothing on the first day of free agency is shocking for an organization that once prided itself as the premier destination for free agents. There was a time when the teams such as Rangers would throw boatloads of money at players and they’d sign for Detroit for less money. But with Boyle, the Red Wings offered a three-year deal at $12.5 million (with salaries of $5 million, $5 million and $2.5 million), while the Rangers got Boyle on a two-year deal for $9 million. The Red Wings were also spurned by Matt Niskanen, who signed with the Washington Capitals for seven years and $40.5 million, $2 million total more than the Red Wings offered over seven years.
There were many in the hockey world who thought the Red Wings would get their comeuppance in a salary cap system, but that’s not at all what has happened here. The Red Wings have handled the salary cap as well as any big-spending, large-market team. They have the money and the cap space, but what they’ve lost is cachet. They are no longer a serious Stanley Cup contender, and for that reason, not a top destination for veterans looking to win now.
WHAT CHANGED? More than 70 players changed teams and more than a half billion dollars was spent July 1, but all of that movement did nothing in the eyes of your trusty correspondent to tip the balance of power in the NHL. The two teams with the best chance to win the Stanley Cup are the same two who had the best chance in 2014 – the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.
In fact, in a scenario that is reminiscent of the days the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox ruled the American League’s Eastern Division in baseball, it seems almost everyone in the Western Conference was just trying to catch up to the Kings and Blackhawks. The Kings, as expected, did absolutely nothing, while the Blackhawks signed veteran Brad Richards to a one-year, $2 million deal that will allow them to bring prospect Teuvo Teravainen along at a slower pace.
It was interesting to see both the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues make the biggest moves of the day, bolstering their center ice corps with Jason Spezza and Paul Stastny, respectively. Colorado responded to losing Stastny by signing Jarome Iginla to a three-year deal, a contract that could very well be one of the biggest backfires of the day. Iginla worked out so well in Boston because the Bruins are a big team that cycles the puck and powers through its opponents. The young and eager Avalanche, on the other hand, is a team that likes to move its feet and the puck very quickly and there are real concerns about whether or not Iginla will be able to keep up that kind of pace.
Speaking of pace, the Kings and Blackhawks have set the pace for everyone else to follow. Whether any of them did enough for them to challenge the two powers of the west remains to be seen, but it doesn’t seem likely.
NIGHTMARE OF A LIFETIME No player’s stock dropped during the playoffs more precipitously than Thomas Vanek’s. But Vanek still got his wish, signing with the Minnesota Wild for three years and $19.5 million. Had he been chasing the money, he would have taken the New York Islanders offer of seven years and $50 million earlier this season.
Vanek thought at the time that he’d still be able to command big money and a long term, but he wasn’t going to get it from the Wild after a playoff run with the Montreal Canadiens in which he looked brilliant at times, uninterested and lifeless at others.
Even though Vanek seemed to get his desired destination, this year’s free agency period can be classified as nothing short of a disaster of biblical proportions for him. When he turned down the Islanders, he did so because unrestricted free agency represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For him to settle for what he did with the Wild indicates he missed out on a great opportunity instead of receiving one.
PANTHERS ON THE PROWL You could argue that no team in the league improved itself as dramatically as the Florida Panthers did. That speaks as much to their salary cap situation and how bad they were last year more than it does to the players they acquired.
Florida GM Dale Tallon was the most aggressive GM in the league on Day 1 of free agency, signing a total of six players, highlighted by a five-year, $27.5 million deal to David Bolland that could end up looking rather, um, dubious in the last two years of the deal. But Tallon had the unique problem of getting up to the $50 million salary floor, which he has now accomplished by adding Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Derek MacKenzie, Shawn Thornton, Willie Mitchell and Al Montoya.
You could argue that Tallon overpaid for every one of them and you probably wouldn’t get much of an argument from the Panthers GM. Such is the situation when you have to spend up to a cap that probably makes almost no sense as a business model for the Panthers, but one to which they must adhere. It’s kind of funny how teams such as the Panthers often get shut out by big spenders in free agency, but got most of their players simply because they had the cap space to offer deals with which teams flush with money simply could not compete.