The opening two days of the NHL’s 2011 Unrestricted Free Agent period has passed, and unlike previous years, where most of the bigger names are gone in the first day, signings of lesser talent for the most part dominated the news.
It was a re-signing which was the opening day’s biggest news, with the Columbus Blue Jackets inking defenseman James Wisniewski, whose rights they acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, to a whopping six years, $33 million, working out to an average of $5.5 million per season.
Wisniewski is a good defenseman, had a strong shot, and plays with a physical edge, netting a career-high 51 points last season. The Blues Jackets needed an experienced puck-moving defenseman and felt “Wiz” is their man.
The problem however is prior to 2010-11, he’d never scored more than 30 points in a season. Investing $5.5 million per season on this 27-year-old could be a huge gamble if he fails to pan out.
Former Philadelphia Flyer right wing Ville Leino cashed in big time, landing a six-year, $27 million contract with the now-free spending Buffalo Sabres, who the day prior raised eyebrows by signing defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, whose rights they acquired from the NY Islanders (who acquired them from the Vancouver Canucks) the day before, to a heavily front-loaded ten year, $40 million deal.
Leino, 27, rose to prominence in the 2010 playoffs with 21 point in 19 games, and this past season had a career-best 53-point performance.
Can’t blame the Sabres, under new ownership willing to invest in the roster, for pursuing Leino, but he’ll be expected to meet or exceed those points totals over the next season years. At $4.5 million per season, Leino must be at least a strong second-line scorer to justify his salary and the faith the Sabres have placed in him.
The Florida Panthers as expected made several notable splashes, bringing back former Panther Ed Jovanovski (4 years, $16.5 million) and adding forwards Tomas Fleischmann (4 years, $18 million) and Scottie Upshall (4 years, $14 million).
All three however come with health concerns. Jovanovski is aging and injuries appear to be catching up with him. Fleischmann was sidelined for most of last season to blood clots (which, thanks to blood thinners, are now apparently under control), while Upshall has struggled to regain the promising scoring form he displayed two seasons ago with Phoenix until derailed by a knee injury.
If they fail to put their health issues behind them, the best that’ll be said about these deals is they helped the Panthers get over the cap floor.
Injuries are also a concern for winger Erik Cole, whom the Montreal Canadiens signed to a four-year, $18 million contract.
The Habs badly needed a big, physical scoring forward, and if Cole can stay healthy and find chemistry with his new linemates, he could provide their offensive lines with a big lift. If not, we could be seeing a more expensive re-run of his short tenure with the Edmonton Oilers.
One signing which could prove worthwhile is the Colorado Avalanche landing defenseman Jan Hejda for a four-year, $13 million contract.
The Avs most notable acquisition was trading for goalie Semyon Varlamov from Washington. Although they also signed veteran goalie J.S. Giguere, Hejda, 33, could be considered their best free agent move.
He has been amongst the most under-rated players in the league, and was reportedly pursued by several suitors before settling with the Avs. His experience and skills should be a godsend to an Avs blueliner which was seriously lacking both in recent years.
The Washington Capitals meanwhile invested four years and $12 million on winger Joel Ward, who’s been a 30-point performer his entire NHL career, but caught fire in the 2011 playoffs, with 13 points in 12 games for the Nashville Predators
If the Caps are expecting Ward could blossom into a scorer on a most offensively gifted club, they could be disappointed if he struggles to play up to those expectations. They may have invested $3 million per season into a decent checking forward.
The most interesting “swerve” of the first day was former NHL star Jaromir Jagr, having teased a possible return with the Pittsburgh Penguins, opted instead to sign with their arch-rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, inking a one-year, $3.3 million contract.
Should be interesting to see how well Jagr performs under the intense demands of a Philadelphia crowd, who should temper their expectations of the one-time superstar. He still has his scoring touch, but he’s slowed in recent years and shouldn’t be expected to be the dominant forward he once was.
Day two began with Brad Richards announcing he’s taking his talents to Broadway…ok, he didn’t say that, but the NY Rangers announced, as expected, they’d signed Richards to a whopping great contract (nine years, $60 million), heavily front-loaded ($50 million in the first five years) for a friendlier cap hit of $6.7 million per season.
Richards will obviously become the Rangers first line center, paired with winger Marian Gaborik, and if those two can find chemistry, the Blueshirts will have a deadly scoring line for the next several seasons.
Yes, it’s a very long term (Richards will be 39 when the contract’s done), and folks are already pointing to the Rangers previous UFA signing follies of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, but Richards over the last two seasons regained the offensive form which made him an award-winning center with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and for the next four seasons at least, he should continue to be one of the league’s top playmakers.
The Toronto Maple Leafs lost out in the bidding for Richards, opting instead for former Sabres center Tim Connolly, who has a good scoring touch but has been plagued for years by injuries and when healthy dogged by criticism of his motivation.
Connolly snagged a two-year, $4.75 million per season deal, only slightly above salary-wise what he earned with the Sabres, yet short enough for the Leafs that they aren’t bogged down long-term if he proves to be a bust.
That’s not to say he will. When healthy, Connolly is a good offensive center, and should be a good fit with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the Leafs first line. Face it, the Leafs couldn’t go into next season lacking an experienced first line center, and Connolly really was the best available choice after Richards signed with the Rangers. His health issues however will hang over him and the Leafs heading into next season.
Another scoring forward with injury issues is Simon Gagne, who will reunite with his former Flyers linemate Mike Richards on the Los Angeles Kings, inking a two-year, $7 million deal with the team he rejected being dealt to a year ago to move on instead to Tampa Bay.
Gagne is a proven offensive winger, with nine seasons of forty or more points, but it’s that injury history which is a concern. He’s never played a full 82-games in his NHL career, and in three of the last four seasons played 63 games or less.
It’s a heckuva risk of $3.5 million per season, contingent on his hopefully bucking the odds and playing more than 70 games per season to make it worthwhile.
The most shocking signing was that of goaltender Tomas Vokoun joining the Washington Capitals on a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
Vokoun,35, was considered among the few truly notable free agents in this summer’s market, but after opting not to re-sign with the Florida Panthers and being passed over by the Colorado Avalanche due to his salary demands, there wasn’t much of a market remaining for his services, leaving him little choice but to accept such a low priced deal.
It’s a terrific signing by the Capitals, who not only get themselves a quality veteran netminder to share the goalie duties next season with promising Michal Neuvirth, but get him for a bargain basement price.