Last summer, 34 NHLers signed free agent contracts on the first day of unrestricted free agency. One year later, that number rose to 40.
So much for fiscal restraint. Although some industry types believe this latest UFA frenzy will be the NHL's last Â– the salary cap maximum, the theory goes, will never again make the leap it did between the '05-06 and 06-07 campaigns, leaving teams with far less wiggle and/or mulligan room than a $44-million cap gave them this year Â– there is no doubt the league's GMs are competitive and/or desperate enough to overpay players as soon as the collective bargaining agreement allows them to.
As always, some teams made off better than others on the first weekend of July. Here's a quick look at five franchises that will best benefit from their newly-acquired free agents, and five that bore the brunt of the off-season's cut-throat money game.
Minnesota The makeover of the Wild began with the acquisition of Pavol Demitra on draft day in Vancouver, and was ratcheted up a couple notches July 1. Native Minnesotan Mark Parrish, who had 29 goals last season with the Islanders and L.A. Kings, was signed to help the team's offense; the defense corps was next to be bolstered, thanks to multi-year deals for offense-minded blueliner Kim Johnsson (ex of the Philadelphia Flyers) and stay-at-home veteran Keith Carney, who split the year between Anaheim and Vancouver. It will be much more difficult now for budding star Marian Gaborik to walk away as a UFA next season.
Phoenix Sure, it was just one signing. But what a signing it was. We speak, of course, of defenseman Ed Jovanovski, lured (somewhat) east by a five-year, $32.5 million contract. The soon-to-be 32-year-old has played just one full 82-game season in his 10-year NHL career, but his veteran presence can't help but make the Coyotes' blueline (which includes Derek Morris, Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard, none of whom are older than 27) one of the elite units in the Western Conference. If GM Mike Barnett can deal for veteran scoring help on the wings, look out.
Toronto Leafs GM John Ferguson found himself often outbid for UFAs last summer, and wasn't about to be left holding an empty gift bag again this year. He signed former Lightning minute-munching blueliner Pavel Kubina for four years and $20 million, and ex-Bruins behemoth Hal Gill for three and $6.3 million, solidifying Toronto's defensive corps for the foreseeable future. Now, did Ferguson overpay for Kubina? Yes. But the way the market for blueliners is going, he underpaid for Tomas Kaberle. And with four young defenseman (including the newly-signed Bryan McCabe) locked up for a while, Ferguson can look to improve the team's forward unit by dangling a few of the Leafs' highly-regarded gaggle of defensive prospects as trade bait.
Los Angeles First, new Kings GM Dean Lombardi added to an already-strong defense by repatriating Rob Blake into the fold with a two-year, $12-million deal. Then, he signed former Sharks standout Alyn McCauley to a three-season pact, giving L.A. two of the best two-way centers in the league (Craig Conroy being the other). And remember, this team would've made the playoffs were it not for a freakish string of injuries to its top players last season. The Pacific might just be the toughest of all NHL divisions next year.
New Jersey The majority of hockey observers believed the Devils would not be able to retain the services of both Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner, who were central to New Jersey's late-season steamroll over any and all opposition. However, GM Lou Lamoriello worked the voodoo only he can do so well, bringing both forwards back with multi-year contracts at less money than they could've received elsewhere. How does he do it? Compromising photographs? Passive-aggressive guilt trips? Only The Lou knows, and he's never been one to spill secrets.
Dallas After their horrendous first-round playoff exit Â– yes, we're still bitter we picked them to win a Cup last year Â– the Stars lost two thirds of their second line in two summer weeks when Jason Arnott signed with Nashville and Bill Guerin was banished to the big buyout ice rink in the sky. Dallas also lost late-season trade pickup Willie Mitchell to Vancouver, then filled his roster spot by re-acquiring Darryl Sydor from Tampa Bay. Which would be fine, except it's not 1999 anymore. Yikes, y'all.
Tampa Bay The Bolts barely made the playoffs last year, and since they were summarily dumped by Ottawa in the first round, they've bid farewell to big winger Fredrik Modin (dealt to Columbus), Kubina and Sydor. Coming in is a goalie (ex-Blue Jackets starter Marc Denis) who hasn't ever won more than 27 NHL games in a single season, and former Minnesota blueliner Filip Kuba, who was considered the Wild's premier offensive defenseman (a backhanded compliment if we've ever heard one) last year. At this rate, the over under on Vinny Lecavalier being on the trade block is set at Christmas.
Colorado See ya, Rob Blake. Bye-bye, Alex Tanguay. HelloÂ…Tyler Arnason? Is this some sort of bad joke? Nope, this is what happens when a huge chunk of your payroll is invested in a mediocre goalie (Jose Theodore) and aging forwards (Joe Sakic, Pierre Turgeon, Steve Konowalchuk, Andrew Brunette). If the Avs qualify for the post-season next spring, they'll be talking about an entirely new Â“Mile High MiracleÂ” in Denver.
Carolina Everybody knew the champion Hurricanes would have little choice but to say sayonara to a few veterans this summer. They're still one of the league's powerhouses, but the Â‘Canes aren't nearly as strong without goalie Martin Gerber (off to Ottawa) and center Matt Cullen (now a New York Ranger). Jim Rutherford, The Hockey News' GM of The Year, has his work cut out in replacing the two, and the signing of John Grahame to replace Gerber doesn't give us the warm-and-fuzzies on that front.
Philadelphia The Flyers and GM Bob Clarke were the league's big spenders last summer, inking Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje to lucrative, long-term deals. Those contracts returned to haunt the organization this year Â– and as a result, they've been forced to let defenseman Kim Johnsson depart for Minnesota, while adding little of consequence (unless you think ex-Canucks blueliner Nolan Baumgartner is large of consequence) in return. Burning question: with Clarke & Co. wishing to rid themselves of goalie Robert Esche, could Philadelphia reach out for either Dominik Hasek or Ed Belfour in the coming weeks? Both will come cheap, which is right up the Flyers' alley.
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