Sunday, July 1, 2007
Updated: July 2, 2:09 PM ET
Teams look dramatically different on Day 1
By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine
If you hockey fans were looking for some wild spending reminiscent of the good ol' pre-lockout days, the opening day of free agency didn't disappoint.
The big-market teams, flush with an extra $6 million in cap space thanks to the new upper limit, were rockin' and rollin' on the first day of July. The Rangers, Flyers, Avalanche, Wings and Maple Leafs, as well as the champion Ducks, all made big-money pickups.
The way the dollars were flying around, you couldn't help wondering: Why did the league have a lockout? Of course, that's a question for another day.
On the first day of free agency, fans around the league were either very happy (Rangers fans) or very sad (Sabres fans). It all depended on who got signed and who was lost. Happy or sad, fans should remember the league doesn't award the Cup in July. Or, at least, it doesn't do that just yet.
Moves that look great on paper sometimes don't pan out. Flyers fans, among the happiest in recent days, need only remember back two summers when the arrival of Peter Forsberg seemed to signal a serious Stanley Cup run. We all know how that worked out.
Still, for better or worse, a good number of teams have a mighty different look after a single day of free agency. Here's a look at some of the more interesting situations.
New York Rangers
If soon-to-be ex-Rangers center Michael Nylander had accepted the club's three-year contract offer several weeks ago, this day might have been a lot different for the Blueshirts.
Instead of trying to please Nylander, who had been a nice fit with Jaromir Jagr, GM Glen Sather decided to go big-game hunting. A little more than six hours into free agency, he bagged Scott Gomez (seven years, $7.36 million cap hit) and Chris Drury (five years, $7.05 million).
Gomez figures to work on a top line with Jagr. There is some irony in that because it was Gomez that Jagr was trying to hit (in the first game of the 2006 conference quarterfinals series between the Rangers and Devils) when he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery to repair. Now, Gomez will be looking to hit Jagr
Drury fits as a perfect all-purpose No. 2 center. Rangers coach Tom Renney likely will be spending hours thinking of all the ways he might use Drury.
Sather will have to figure out a way to get his key unsigned players (restricted free agents Henrik Lundqvist, Sean Avery and Petr Prucha and unrestricted veteran Brendan Shanahan) into the fold and under the cap. Remember, teams don't have to be totally cap-compliant until opening night. Between now and then, clubs can carry a payroll of as much as $55M. Sather didn't sound too worried about it Sunday night.
"We've calculated it out," Sather said. "I think we can get it done."
The Rangers might want to see about trading for another defenseman. Right now, they seem a little light in that department, even with the likely promotion of young and highly touted Marc Staal from the junior level.
GM Paul Holmgren has done a major remake job on his team in a few short months. He continued the process Sunday, signing point-producing star center Daniel Briere (eight years, $6.5M cap hit) and trading for gritty defenseman Jason Smith and young winger Joffrey Lupul. We can't forget that Holmgren jumped the marketplace two weeks ago to get free-agents-to-be Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen.
Briere figures to center the club's first line with wingers Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble. Hartnell likely will work on the second line with any number of possible linemates.
If the last-place Flyers aren't a playoff team in the spring, it won't be for lack of trying. Holmgren has done everything he can to turn this team around quickly.
Second-year GM Francois Giguere liked the way his team finished the season (just missing the playoffs), but he wasn't ready to stand pat.
After a long day of negotiations, Giguere ended up with prize left winger Ryan Smyth (five years, $6.25M cap hit) and hard-nosed defenseman Scott Hannan (four years, $4.5M).
Smyth should step right onto the top line with center Joe Sakic. Smyth and Sakic have played together for Canada on the international stage. The two men were part of the 2002 Olympic gold medal-winning Canadian team. Smyth was pursued by as many as 10 teams during the day before finally deciding to settle on Denver.
Hannan, meanwhile, brings some depth and toughness to the Avs' blue line. His game is a nice complement to those of guys such as John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold.
Detroit Red Wings
The Wings made a splash by stealing puck-moving defenseman Brian Rafalski (five years, $6M cap hit) from his longtime home in New Jersey. GM Ken Holland opted to move on Rafalski rather than make an effort to re-sign departing defender Mathieu Schneider. When the season starts, 34-year-old Rafalski will be four years younger than Schneider, who signed with the Ducks.
The Wings didn't land a top-six forward on the first day of free agency. That might open the door for the return (if the price is right) of Todd Bertuzzi. Holland also must complete negotiations with goalie Dominik Hasek on a new deal. Although you're never certain until a deal is done, Hasek's return to Hockeytown seems very likely.
GM Brian Burke wasn't planning for a big shopping day. Earlier in the week, he joked to a local reporter that he'd be "shopping at Kmart" during free agency.
Burke's plans changed dramatically when he got an early-morning call from star defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who told his boss he was "leaning toward retirement." Armed with that knowledge, Burke quickly made a significant play for Schneider. The two sides came to a quick agreement on a two-year deal ($5.625M cap hit).
Considering the circumstances, it's a terrific move for the Ducks. Schneider, 38, is a veteran who should be able to make a quick adjustment to his new surroundings. He's still a good skater who can hammer the puck from the point. He can't replace Niedermayer (who can?), but he'll help the team make the transition.
If Niedermayer does decide to return to the Ducks, Burke says the club will be able to fit both players under the cap.
Toronto Maple Leafs
In Leafs nation, the fans wanted the club to sign an Islanders free agent. And the club didn't let them down
After being priced out of the Ryan Smyth sweepstakes, GM John Ferguson grabbed winger Jason Blake (five years, $4M cap hit), who potted 40 goals for the Islanders last season. Small but speedy Blake will hope to find a nice chemistry with top center Mats Sundin.
It will be interesting to see how Blake fits into the Leafs' dressing room. Several sources on Long Island say the goal-scoring winger had worn out his welcome. With a new long-term deal in Toronto, Blake gets a fresh start.
Well, it was a tough day for Sabres fans, who were hoping they could keep one of their two co-captains. But both were gone before the sun went down over Buffalo. To make matters worse, they both landed with Eastern Conference rivals.
Sabres GM Darcy Regier now must turn his attention to finding some replacements and securing restricted free agents Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy. Regier probably figures Tim Connolly can move into one of the top two center spots. That's a tall order for a young player with a history of injury/concussion problems.
In retrospect, Sabres fans probably feel as though it didn't have to be this way. They're right, it didn't; but Sabres management waited too long to act. In time, maybe the decision will have proved to be a wise one. Time can do that. On this day, though, it's tough to swallow in Buffalo.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils also lost a pair of core guys with Gomez and Rafalski opting for greener ($$$) pastures. Their departure comes at a particularly interesting time as the club prepares to move into a new building.
Like his counterpart in Buffalo, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello will have to focus his efforts on finding some replacements and re-signing his restricted free agents (Zach Parise and Paul Martin). Lamoriello also has to settle on a new coach. At this point, assistant coach John MacLean appears to be the favorite. In the past, however, Lamoriello's coaching choices have been tough to predict.
The new coach, whoever it is, might have to move star Patrik Elias or Parise from wing to center to help fill the void left by Gomez. If Lamoriello goes the trade route, he might think about reacquiring ex-Devil Jason Arnott, who could be available if the fire sale in Nashville continues.
Los Angeles Kings
For the second straight summer, the Kings came into free agency with high hopes. And, for the second straight summer, they'll have to settle for leftovers.
GM Dean Lombardi was ultra-interested in Drury, who eventually opted for the other coast. He also missed the boat on Briere.
In the short term, these are tough setbacks. In the long run, the Kings can continue their rebuilding process. They'll have to remain patient and stay the course. In the end, that's the best course for this franchise to take.
New York Islanders
At the trade deadline, GM Garth Snow rolled the dice on a high-risk/high-reward deal for Smyth. On Sunday, the dice came up snake eyes.
Now, after dealing away two former first-round picks and a first-round selection in the recently completed 2007 draft, the Islanders have nothing to show for the Smyth deal.
To make matters worse, they also lost 40-goal scorer Blake, along with forward Viktor Kozlov (25 goals) and puck-moving defender Tom Poti, who both signed with the Caps.
Snow will need to make some very smart signings in the coming days and weeks if his team is going be to a playoff team again in 2008.
E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.