The opening day of the NHL’s 2014 free agent market saw a record half-billion dollars (say that in Dr. Evil voice) handed out to 70 players. Proof positive that the NHL salary cap has done bugger-all to prevent NHL general managers from succumbing to auction fever in the free agent market.
Every year GMs go nuts handing out big-dollar contracts to unrestricted free agents, many of whom will never play up to the expectations that come with their new-found riches. What made this year’s opening day more frenzied was the interview period for free agents in the days leading up to the start of free agency, allowing GMs time to get an idea of which players they could land and how much it could cost. As a result, most had their ducks in a row when the market opened at noon eastern.
We can expect to see more frenzied opening-day free agent spending sprees in the future. It’ll be the NHL’s version of Black Friday every July first from now until the current CBA expires in 2022, if the league doesn’t find an excuse to bail on the agreement before then.
It’s typical following the initial crush of signings for pundits, bloggers and fans to rush out a rash of “winners and losers” columns/blogs/message forum posts ranking the best and worst signings and which teams benefited the most or least.
I’m not going to be that obvious. No, sir, no winners or losers for me. Rather, I’m going to steal a page from the Siskel & Ebert/The Reporters with Dave Hodge and offer up my “thumbs up/thumbs down” on the most notable signings of July 1, 2014. Ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you? OK, since you read the heading of this piece you obviously did. Anyway, on to the list. Tally-ho!
Thumbs Up: To the Dallas Stars, who pulled off the daily double by not sacrificing depth to acquire Jason Spezza from Ottawa, then inked Ales Hemsky to a reasonable three-year, $12 million contract. Spezza and Hemsky had terrific chemistry during their brief period together last season in Ottawa. Of course, Spezza is eligible for UFA status next summer and Hemsky has a long injury history. Still, should they continue to click this coming season, the Stars will have two dynamite scoring lines to compete with the big boys in the increasingly-competitive Western Conference.
Thumbs Down: To the Washington Capitals for taking leave of their senses and investing $40.25 million over seven years in Matt Niskanen and $27.5 million over five years in Brooks Orpik. Sure, they’ll help the Capitals defense in the short term, and I understand they had to improve their defense. But Niskanen isn’t a $6 million per season blueliner, and Orpik ain’t worth $5.5 million annually. Mind you, if the cap jumps to, say $80 million within two-or-three years, these salaries can be more easily absorbed, provided the Caps don’t blow their brains out again with more overspending on free agents.
Thumbs Up: To the St. Louis Blues. They needed an offensive center and found one in Paul Stastny. Sure they overpaid for the privilege ($7 million annually) but it’s only a four-year term. At 28, Stastny’s in his prime. With the depth of established talent in St. Louis, he should prove a productive addition to the Blues scoring lines. This move should ensure the Blues remain among the top teams in the Western Conference.
Thumbs Down: To the Detroit Red Wings. Remember when the Wings used to be the destination of choice for unrestricted free agents? They had the cap space to spend this season, but this generation of free-agent talent isn’t stampeding to Detroit as their predecessors used to. The Wings had interest in this summer’s best available free-agent defenseman (Matt Niskanen, Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Boyle, Antron Stralman) but ultimately wound up re-signing Kyle Quincey for two more years. GM Ken Holland is expected to shop for a right-handed defenseman via trade, though to land a good one could cost them one of their promising young forwards.
Thumbs Up: To the Minnesota Wild for convincing Thomas Vanek to accept a lesser deal (three-years, $19.5 million) to come home to Minnesota. Though a streaky scorer, he’s reached or exceeded the 20-goal mark in each of his nine NHL seasons and 60-or-more points in six of them. Vanek will be a good addition to the Wild’s offense.
Thumbs Down: To the New Jersey Devils for their additions of Mike Cammalleri (five years, $25 million) and Martin Havlat (one-year, $1.5 million). If Cammalleri can stay healthy he should boost their scoring on left wing in the short term, but his injury history (and that of the perpetually-sidelined Havlat) is cause for concern. Inking the 32-year-old Cammalleri for five years is about two years too long. At least they didn’t overpay for Havlat.
Thumbs Up: To the Tampa Bay Lightning, aka New York Rangers south, with their signings of defenseman Anton Stralman (five years, $22.5 million) and center Brian Boyle (three years, $6 million), joining former Blueshirts teammate Ryan Callahan. The deals are reasonable, and if both can perform to the same level they did this season with the Rangers (particularly in the playoffs) they’ll be well worthwhile.
Thumbs Down: To the New York Rangers, who replaced departed players like Brad Richards, Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle with Dan Boyle, Tanner Glass, Matt Hunwick and Mike Kostka. To be fair, the Blueshirts didn’t have much choice as they must re-sign RFAs Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and Derick Brassard, who are in line for raises. Still, these additions aren’t upgrades over those they bought out or lost to free agency.
Thumbs Up: To the Toronto Maple Leafs for resisting the temptation to overpay Dave Bolland to stay in Toronto. Yes, I know, the Leafs roster is pretty much similar to last season’s inconsistent bunch which faded out of playoff contention, and it doesn’t appear they’re going to shake things up via trade (sorry, James Reimer). But after grossly overpaying for David Clarkson last summer, Leafs management used some common sense and kept their free agent goals realistic. They also brought back Leo Komarov (four years at $2.95 million per season), who should provide an extra measure of jam to their checking lines.
Thumbs Down: To the Colorado Avalanche for giving an ageing (37 years old) Jarome Iginla a three-year, $16 million deal. I get why they added Iggy. They lost Paul Stastny to free agency and needed to replace his offense. And yes, Iginla tallied 30 goals last season for the umpteenth time in his long, future Hall-of-Famer career. And yes, he’ll bring leadership and experience. But this is an expensive risk on an scorer whose best years are well behind him. Factor in their pre-free agency acquisition of a fading Daniel Briere, and the Avs may have taken a step backward.
Thumbs Up: To the Pittsburgh Penguins for signing Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4 million contract. Ehrhoff could’ve made much more on a longer term elsewhere, but GM Jim Rutherford convinced him to accept less to join a still star-studded Penguins team. They also landed a good backup in Thomas Greiss.
Thumbs Down: To the Montreal Canadiens for not getting something worthwhile for Josh Gorges. Bad enough they decided to trade the defensive stalwart, though apparently it was done to shed salary. And yes, they did ok by adding Tom Gilbert and Manny Malhotra plus brought back Mike Weaver for affordable deals. But only a second-round pick in 2016 for Gorges? GM Marc Bergevin was rumored to have a deal with the Maple Leafs which would’ve brought Cody Franson to Montreal but Gorges refused to go to Toronto. If so, Bergevin was left scrambling to find a deal. This move won’t be remembered among Bergevin’s finest. They’ll miss Gorges shot-blocking and leadership.
Thumbs Up and Down: To the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Thumbs up for adding Jonas Hiller and under-rated Mark Fayne. The Flames needed an established starting goalie and Hiller addresses that need. Fayne will provide a much-needed boost of skill to the Oilers defense corps. Thumbs down for overpaying enforcer Deryk Engelland and inconsistent Benoit Pouliot. Between the two, the Flames get the booby prize. Three years at $2.9 million annually for Engelland? Holy overpayment, Batman!
Thumbs Down: to the Florida Panthers for signing over-rated Dave Bolland to a five-year, $25 million contract. Look, I know they had to reach the cap floor, and I expected Dale Tallon, who knows Bolland from their days with the Chicago Blackhawks, would pursue him. Bolland, however, isn’t a second-line center, as much as the Blackhawks tried to make him one and the Leafs hoped he’d become. This is way too much money for far too long for a player of Bolland’s caliber.