Zherdev versus Gagne: Who wins here?
On a day when New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello wagered more than $100 million and 17 years of his team's existence on Ilya Kovalchuk being "the man," the Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning were playing a little player poker, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The Flyers had earlier signed unrestricted free-agent enigma Nikolai Zherdev to a one-year deal, which meant GM Paul Holmgren had to make room for him under the cap. Gagne became that piece Monday afternoon.
Holmgren is banking that Zherdev, 25, can display the tools that made him the fourth overall pick in 2003 while revealing the kind of maturity and consistency that were lacking during earlier stints with Columbus (under coach Ken Hitchcock) and the New York Rangers (under coaches Tom Renney and John Tortorella).
That's the gamble for Holmgren and the Flyers. If Zherdev can't become that player, the Flyers risk upsetting a dressing room chemistry that led them to an unlikely Stanley Cup finals berth this spring.
Holmgren's gamble cost the Flyers one of their most popular players in Gagne, who has never played for another NHL team after being drafted 22nd overall by Philadelphia in 1998.
He will forever be part of Flyers lore. It was Gagne's dramatic return to the lineup in the second round of the playoffs that helped spark the Flyers' historic comeback against the Boston Bruins. Gagne, out with a broken toe since late in the first round, scored the overtime winner in Game 4 with the Flyers trailing 3-0 in the series. They went on to become only the third NHL team to erase a 3-0 deficit and win a series.
Although Gagne's play dropped off in the Cup finals against Chicago, Tampa rookie GM Steve Yzerman said in a conference call Monday that he believes Gagne is fully healthy.
And that's the risk for Yzerman. Like with Zherdev, the exposure to risk is for only a year; Gagne has a year left on his current contract that will pay him $5.25 million. Unlike with Zherdev, Yzerman isn't gambling on character when it comes to Gagne.
Yzerman continues to impress in his initial weeks on the job, rapidly putting his own distinct stamp on the Lightning. Earlier this month, he traded defenseman Andrej Meszaros to Philadelphia to clear some cap room. He then signed defenseman Pavel Kubina, who won a Cup in Tampa Bay, hired highly regarded AHL coach Guy Boucher and now has added a blue-chip forward in Gagne.
Gagne, who played on Canada's gold-medal Olympic team with Yzerman in Salt Lake City in 2002, will join Ryan Malone, Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Steve Downie and Martin St. Louis on a Lightning forward contingent that, on paper, looks to be as dangerous as that of any team in the Eastern Conference with the possible exception of the Washington Capitals.
If Gagne remains healthy, there's nothing to suggest the 30-year-old won't return to the 30-40 goal mark.
The Flyers hope to say the same thing at the end of the day.