I know the free agency period is still really young, but many of the big names have already moved, and a number of high profile trades have gone through. It’s as good a time as any to examine our 5 Winners and Losers of Free Agency (so far).
5. Florida Panthers
This is a fringe pick in my book, partly because they were so under the cap they needed to make some signings in order to reach the cap floor, but this being said, Dale Talon has done an admirable job in wooing free agents to play in what is the NHL equivalent of a graveyard. Trading for Campbell and Kopecky, and signing solid two way forwards in Sean Bergenheim and Scotty Upshall will help this squad immensely. Whether we buy into the hype is another story, but all of these guys did. Bonus: The Panthers lost franchise goaltender Tomas Vokoun to greener pastures (Washington Capitals) but were able to replace him with a veteran presence in Jose Theadore. Much maligned, Theadore will have a chip on his shoulder to prove his doubters wrong.
4. Edmonton Oilers
Another team that had some money to burn, Edmonton seems to have addressed many of their key needs through free agency and trades. None of the names stand out more than the rest, unless you consider Ryan Smyth a standout (he’s slightly past his prime here people), but they got back solid returns on their investment with guys like Cam Barker, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, and Ladislav Smid. With the immense talent pool this team has to play with, it’s a pretty safe bet they won’t be playing for a lottery pick this season. Bonus: With all of the big names out there, Edmonton opted to go the rout less travelled, and stick with their marquee guys. The only big name coming in would have to be Ryan Smyth, and it’s a move made out of reputation. Smyth was certainly deserving of picking a home to retire in, and the Oilers will welcome him back with open arms.
3. Buffalo Sabres
I toyed with the idea of bumping them up, but the majority of their moves came through trades, so we’ll keep them here at 3. At first glance Buffalo is a hard team to put a finger on. If you’re a die hard fan, you’ll find the words come easy, but for those of us who follow other teams, it was hard to imagine how Buffalo was able to thrive with such underwhelming rosters. The easy answer? They had a ton of character, but lacked formidable skill. What they did add was an underrated set up man in Ville Leino, and trade for some above average defenders in Robin Reghere and Christian Erhoff. Bonus: This team managed to compete for a playoff spot this past year despite dealing with injuries and a lack of scoring punch. Without losing much, they were able to bolster both their blue line, and add a decent facilitator up front in Leino. They’ll be back in the mix early in the North East.
2. Los Angeles Kings
This may seem strange to many of you, considering they haven’t had much movement over the last few days, but in all reality, finding a way to add to your roster without any subtraction is mighty impressive, especially considering who they were able to get. This team has a nice mix of veteran leadership and youth ready to break out, it’s a wonder they didn’t make a deeper run last year until you consider the injuries. Somehow fleecing Philadelphia for Mike Richards, the Kings added captain material while shipping out a few slower developing prospects (Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn) and they were able to add a proven playoff contender in Simon Gagne as well. When Anze Kopitar returns 100%, this team will be a scary one out West. Bonus: Considered early contenders for the services of Brad Richards, the Kings stood down and made moves that made a ton more sense. The 9 million dollar contract he signed wouldn’t have allowed them as much flexibility to improve.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
One year after blowing up the team due to poor cap management, the Blackhawks were back at it, signing a wealth of solid players to improve an already dangerous team. The one thing lacking last year as they were bounced from the playoffs by Vancouver? Size and physicality. Carcillo, Mayers and Brunett bring size and pop, but don’t hurt them offensively. Simultaniously, while adding through free agency, they were removing a cancerous contract from their books in the form of Brian Campbell. Don’t take this the wrong way, Campbell is a solid defenseman, someone who will compete with the best of them, but the amount of money tied up on the blue line was hamstringing this team. This will be a huge addition by subtraction for the Hawks. Bonus: How in the world does one convince a team to trade a 1st round pick for a guy whose averaged less than 40 points a season for 3 NHL seasons? Troy Brouwer, while still maintaining a lot of upside, wasn’t worthy of Washington’s first round pick, yet here we are.
Honorable mention: Toronto Maple Leafs. This has less to do with any moves Burke made, but more with the fact that he didn’t make any glaringly awful ones. It seems this time each year we’re shaking our heads at some hard to understand trade or signing. Maybe this speaks to better days in Toronto.
5. Phoenix Coyotes
They find themselves on this list for one reason and one reason only. Ilya Bryzgolov. Not only did they do very little to resign one of the best goalies in the NHL for consecutive years, they let him go for far less than he was worth. And to make matters worse, they acquired often injured perennial backup Mike Smith to replace him. This team, despite the encouraging last few years, is now even further away from any kind of sustained success.
4. Montreal Canadiens
Here’s a team that for years has done nothing but try to improve through addition both via trade and free agency. Yet in an offseason that’s seen their biggest rival win the Stanley Cup, and many of their divisional opponents improve, they’ve done nothing to improve their own club. Overpaying for Erik Cole (4.2 million a year? Are you joking?) and letting a huge chunk of their roster walk for various reasons, it remains to be seen if there’s enough left out there to make them contenders again.
3. St. Louis Blues
I don’t understand how a franchise consistently on the bubble can continue to justify that kind of existence. Whenever this team is one or two pieces away from contending, they seem to try and get older, and wiser. If only they could improve the latter in the front office. Although they added a few significant pieces is Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, none of the additions screams we’re better! So it remains to be seen if they’ll have a positive effect, but with cap space that was available to them, it’s egregious that they didn’t make a single move on an elite or high level player.
2. Dallas Stars
Some may argue that they did everything they could to replace fleeing superstar Brad Richards, but in the end, Dallas fans will be left wanting. Richards is a special player on the ice, and all they could do to supplant him is to overpay on again, off again Michael Ryder (2 years, 7 million). Sure he can play in the playoffs, but the way the Stars look, there’s no guaranteeing they’ll even make it.
1. Philadelphia Flyers
There will be two very differing sides to this argument, and I must agree that with this much change comes uncertainty, and they can absolutely improve going forward. But the one thing I can’t understand is that they traded their two most consistent and beloved players (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) for guys that aren’t going to help them win NOW. With the team smaller and less physical than ever, it remains to be seen if they can still compete with the big guys in the East. I personally think aside from the Bryzgolov trade, they got fleeced left and right. Think Montreal circa 2008. Things won’t end well with them.
Honorable Mention: Carolina Hurricanes. Yet another team overpaying for so-so players. As a Bruins fan I can tell you Kaberle is a hot and cold player, and despite that he probably deserves a second chance, to swing with a 3 year deal worth 4.3 million will probably become a point of contention in Raleigh. Unfortunately, to add to the dysfunction, they seem to have built a roster with as many Toronto cast off as they could… and if I remember correctly, Toronto wasn’t very good for a pretty long time.