You’d hope by now it wouldn’t need to be said that the real winners of the NHL’s annual first day of free agency are at least as often as not the teams that don’t throw lavish contracts at every flavor of the summer. Today’s impulse buy can become tomorrow’s cold-blooded buyout quicker than ever – ask former Rangers captain and new Blackhawks center Brad Richards – and nobody can predict with absolute certainty how any player will fit into his new environment.
Nevertheless, when all teams come away from this first day spinning it as working in their favor, somebody has to try and make sense of it all. That’s what this free agency winners/losers column is all about: one opinion on which teams can realistically claim to have improved, and which ones you can argue have hurt themselves with their activity – or, as the case may be, their lack of action:
The Stars signed winger Ales Hemsky to a very reasonable (three-year, $12-million) deal and added worker bee forward Patrick Eaves and backup goalie Anders Lindback via free agency, but their best acquisition Tuesday was the trade with Ottawa for center Jason Spezza. Nill made his team significantly better up front at very little cost to the roster – and, just as importantly, he’s given up virtually no contract flexibility (he’ll have some $35.4 million in cap space to spend next summer) to do it. In this day and age, that’s as much as you can ask for on free agent day.
The Pens’ reputation took a bit of a beating after they cleaned house on the management side, but there are still NHLers who believe in the organization – chief among them defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who turned down offers that were better than the one-year, $4-million deal he signed with Pittsburgh. New GM Jim Rutherford should be commended for not splurging to re-sign UFA defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, both of who left to be significantly overpaid in Washington (more on them below), and for landing a solid backup goalie in Thomas Greiss. Tuesday’s haul, as well as the return Rutherford got from Nashville for James Neal, makes this an above-average debut for the former Hurricanes GM.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts were one of the league’s more active teams in advance of free agent day and they showed why on Tuesday. GM Steve Yzerman used $4.5 million of his newfound cap space to: sign one of the more heralded available defensemen, former Rangers blueliner Anton Stralman, to a five-year deal; bring in a veteran backup netminder in Evgeni Nabokov; and add size up front in the form of former Blueshirts forward Brian Boyle. Yzerman hasn’t been afraid to be active and his team looks even better than the one that finished third in the Eastern Conference last season.
In the absence of a discernable blueprint for success in the past 20 years, the Panthers have on occasion thrown a lot of money against the free agency wall and stood proudly beside whatever stuck. This appears to be one of those times. Bolstered by new ownership that’s ready to spend, GM Dale Tallon went bananas Tuesday. First, he made former Leafs center David Bolland his highest-paid forward and signed winger Jussi Jokinen away from Pittsburgh; then, he added greybeard Willie Mitchell to his blueline; after that, he signed a trio of footsoldiers (Derek MacKenzie, Shawn Thornton and goalie Al Montoya) to his roster. Florida now has more name recognition, but they’re still a long shot to make the playoffs.
Like the Penguins, the Capitals fired their GM and coach after disappointing seasons. But where Pittsburgh has made some of the savvier moves of the off-season, Washington has made some of the riskiest. Adding Orpik and Niskanen gives the Caps’ blueline more talent and experience, but both players are gambles: Orpik is the type of stay-at-home defenseman many teams have regretted spending lucratively on; while Niskanen hasn’t consistently produced as well on offense as he did last season. At a time when the Capitals should be questioning their direction, the new administration has doubled down on this group by adding pieces. This could all go very wrong, very quickly.
The Hurricanes made two signings on Tuesday, bringing back RFA winger Jiri Tlusty and adding former Avs center Brad Malone. They lost defensive specialist Manny Malhotra, who signed with Montreal for a couple hundred thousand dollars more than Malone received. I realize the Canes are a budget team, but this doesn’t inspire much confidence in their competitiveness for 2014-15. Carolina finished 13th in the East and second-last in their division last year – and even with a new GM in Ron Francis and coach in Bill Peters, they’re looking less than formidable. You can hurt yourself by doing too much on free agent day, but you can also fail to keep up with the Joneses.