Friday, July 6, 2007
Rangers come out on top with free agency picks
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
And so the dust has all but settled on the free agency battlefield.
There are a few stragglers hiding in the woods, Alexei Yashin, Daniel Markov, Curtis Joseph and, surprisingly, Sheldon Souray. But for the most part teams have staked their claim to improving their lot by throwing boatloads of dough and years of security at this year's crop of unrestricted free agents. In the final reckoning only a handful will enjoy true success and of course only one will see the ultimate reward with a Stanley Cup next spring. Until then here's our look at the winners and losers of the free agency conflict.
Will Chris Drury help lead the Rangers to winning the Cup?
New York Rangers
Yes it cost them the services of Jaromir Jagr's favorite center Michael Nylander, but the Rangers shocked the hockey world by bringing in two of the top three centers on the market in Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. They had to commit to seven years for Gomez, which is a lot for a guy who has scored fewer than 20 goals in six of seven NHL seasons, but the Rangers are loaded for bear up front. They still don't appear good enough defensively to win a Cup but that's what Henrik Lundqvist is for, right?
Here's the mark of a fine GM; identify your needs and resolve them quickly and decisively. Kudos to sophomore Avs GM Francois Giguere who added rock-solid defenseman Scott Hannan and gritty, talented Ryan Smyth up front to ensure (on paper at least) that the Avs return to the playoff fold after a rare season on the outside. If Peter Budaj is the real deal in goal, and his play late last season suggests he's close, the Avs look to be a contender to win the Northwest Division.
Okay, as fine a player and as good a guy as Daniel Briere is, eight years is an awfully long time to have one player on the books, especially at $6.5 million a year. Regardless, Briere was the slick, playmaking forward the Flyers had targeted from early on in the proceedings and give them credit for landing their man. Factor in sort of free agent additions Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell (the Flyers acquired their signing rights prior to the start of free agency), the trade for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul and the late-season additions of Martin Biron and Scottie Upshall and the Flyers appear to be a world away from the disjointed squad that finished dead last in the league last season. Playoffs or bust will definitely be the team's mantra this coming season.
After speeding ahead of their projected development curve last season and finishing with 105 points, the Penguins have added a couple of small but key pieces to their Stanley Cup puzzle. Looking to shore up a young and sometimes error-prone defensive corps, GM Ray Shero brought in two-time Cup winner Darryl Sydor from Dallas. They also re-signed veteran forwards Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi to provide continued dressing room ballast. Shero also added scoring depth in former Cup winner Petr Sykora. He's streaky but on a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, it might not matter as much as it did in Edmonton.
True, we don't think much of the hiring of Mike Keenan as head coach, but credit GM and former coach Darryl Sutter for getting the kinds of players Keenan will like such as defensemen Cory Sarich, who won a Cup in Tampa Bay, and Adrian Aucoin, who played for Keenan during his brief, tumultuous reign of error in Vancouver. Owen Nolan, a Sutter favorite from San Jose, should be better in his second season back after knee problems and the lockout. Re-signing Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr to long-term deals also helps stabilize the environment.
St. Louis Blues
You can quibble with whether president John Davidson and GM Larry Pleau over-paid for Paul Kariya (three years at $6 million per annum), but Kariya will help an emerging group of young forwards and will add some pop to a 29th-ranked power play. The Blues also returned Keith Tkachuk as they did a year ago with Doug Weight (how convenient) and their defense is solid and getting better. Playoffs are not out of the question for a team that has missed twice in a row after a 25-year post-season run.
The Capitals hope Michael Nylander will help rebuild the team.
Slowly, quietly, GM George McPhee is building the Caps into a dangerous team in the east. Hard-working and tough already, the Caps added some offensive juice down the middle in the form of Viktor Kozlov and Michael Nylander (now Public Enemy #1 in Edmonton, not that anyone in Washington cares) who combined for 51 goals and 134 points a year ago. Tom Poti, another New York Islander ex-pat should help out a power play that ranked 24th. The Caps hung around the playoff race for two-thirds of a season a year ago -- look for them to be in it until the end this coming season.
The Panthers' annual pattern of playing lousy until they're out of playoff contention and then racing back into the fray only to fall just short makes it hard to determine where the Panthers are at developmentally. But with Tomas Vokoun between the pipes and with added depth in the form of Richard Zednik, Radek Dvorak and Brett McLean up front, the Panthers have no excuse for not being in the playoff hunt from the get-go -- unless of course they're just not very good. At least fans will know early on this year.
Toronto Maple Leafs
If we're judging simply on whether a team is better now than they were at the end of the regular season the Leafs fall into the 'yes' category. Adding Vesa Toskala and signing him to a two-year extension will give the Leafs better goaltending, while acknowledging last year's acquisition of Andrew Raycroft was a bust. Signing Jason Blake, presumably to play with captain Mats Sundin, is a good thing for a team that's missed the post-season for two straight years. The fact the Leafs have, once again, abandoned the notion of building slowly and patiently from within is another matter altogether.
Los Angeles Kings
Yes, the Los Angeles Kings signed a lot of players; Brad Stuart, Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing and Kyle Calder; but this free agency test isn't graded on volume but quality and the Kings are still a step, maybe two, away from being a playoff team. Still, the Kings are definitely better than a year ago even though they still don't have a number-one goaltender and GM Dean Lombardi seems to have positioned himself well for a bigger splash next summer when he might add the cornerstones as opposed to the complimentary pieces he's assembled this summer.
Let's assume defenseman Scott Niedermayer and forward Teemu Selanne call it quits, give GM Brian Burke credit for pro-active moves to acquire Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi to plug those gaping holes. The Bertuzzi signing is a bigger gamble, especially at $4 million a year for two years, but this will still be a formidable team capable of mounting a serious defense of the Stanley Cup. If Selanne returns the Ducks will obviously be better off up front. If Selanne and Niedermayer return call in the accountants and book the parade route again.
Detroit Red Wings
Neutral isn't a bad thing when you are a perennial 100-point regular season team that last season advanced to the Western Conference final and might well have bested Anaheim if not for a couple of bad breaks and injuries. Losing Schneider was a blow, but signing long-time New Jersey Devil Brian Rafalski moments later softened that blow mightily. Returning Dominik Hasek is a calculated risk, but he was such a good citizen last season -- and played so well -- a risk well worth taking for the NHL's model franchise.
There's more than a little sense of deck chairs being shuffled on the good ship Hab this summer. True, they got rid of unhappy Sergei Samsonov and signed Roman Hamrlik ostensibly to fill the gap expected to be vacated by offensively gifted defenseman Sheldon Souray. But the Habs are still thin down the middle and don't figure to be any more intimidating offensively than last season when they ranked 16th in goals scored meaning they'll be life-and-death to make the playoffs after missing last year.
The Bruins shot their bolt a year ago with free agents Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara and still missed the playoffs. GM Peter Chiarelli added erstwhile Minnesota netminder Manny Fernandez via trade, but his mental toughness remains very much in doubt (Fernandez's not Chiarelli's) and Fernandez will face a lot more rubber in Boston than he did under Jacques Lemaire's stifling system in Minnesota.
For a team that finished 29th in NHL scoring a year ago, adding Robert Lang, Sergei Samsonov and Yanic Perreault is a good thing. Right? Still, we can't help but feel GM Dale Tallon was doing a little shopping at the scratch-and-dent end of the free agent bazaar. The team's stockpile of talented young prospects is still a couple of years away from leading them back to the promised land.
A team that has been woeful at developing its own talent managed to plug a couple of holes down the middle by signing inexpensive free agents Todd White and Eric Perrin. They've still got problems on defense where they're saddled with Alexei Zhitnik and newcomer Ken Klee won't make them any speedier. Returning Slava Kozlov is a big boost, but this is a team that, until it can start bringing along its own players at a more impressive rate, will be stuck in hockey neutral -- which is to say going nowhere fast.
Tampa Bay Lightning
We like the addition of Michel Ouellet from Pittsburgh and it may be the catalyst to getting Brad Richards back in the 90-point range after an off year last season. It better be. They also added enigmatic Chris Gratton for depth down the middle, lost Cory Sarich to Calgary and returned Brad Lukowich to the fold. A little up, a little down, but still a team that should be in the hunt for another playoff berth.
Being stuck in neutral just two years after winning the Stanley Cup isn't necessarily a bad thing if you believe guys like Cam Ward, Cory Stillman, Eric Staal and Erik Cole will all bounce back to form this coming season. Adding ex-Chicago Blackhawk Jeff Hamilton could be one of the steals of the free agency season.
Hello, anyone there? Did GM Dave Nonis sleep through his free agency wake-up call? Not sure if anyone in Vancouver noticed that they can't score, but it might have been nice for Roberto Luongo et al if the Canucks' big offseason move wasn't acquiring Anaheim farmhand Ryan Shannon -- not to disparage Shannon who is a fine young man.
Guess getting waxed by Anaheim in the first round wasn't a wake-up call for the Wild who are neither better nor worse than they were at the end of the regular season unless you count the addition of disgraced doper Sean Hill who will miss the first 19 games of the regular season serving his suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy. Aim for the middle of the green and hope for a long putt seems to be the Wild's plan moving forward.
The Coyotes did nothing on the free agent front, in part because they made a big splash a year ago signing Ed Jovanovski to a long-term deal and adding, among others, Nick Boynton, Owen Nolan, Jeremy Roenick and Yanic Perreault. Most of those players are gone now, which isn't a bad thing. The team still lacks a bona fide number-one NHL goaltender and in spite of a nice collection of defensive players and prospects can expect once again to be a Western Conference punching bag.
Alexei Yashin may not be on the Islanders bench anymore.
New York Islanders
Let's see. Take away Jason Blake, Tom Poti, Ryan Smyth, Alexei Yashin, Viktor Kozlov and doper Sean Hill and replace them with Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin. That doesn't sound like too good a deal. And Ted Nolan thought he had a long road ahead of him a year ago. Nolan pulled a rabbit out of his coaching hat once in getting the Isles to the playoffs last spring. Not this time.
New Jersey Devils
We know, people have been predicting the decline of the Devils for a long time. Still, in the space of two-plus seasons they've lost Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski. Yes, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac show promise and there's still Martin Brodeur who will now have a capable back-up in the form of Kevin Weekes. But outside Paul Martin there's little in the way of puck-moving defensemen and not much offensive depth even with the addition of Dainius Zubrus to keep fans buying tickets in that brand new building in Newark.
Columbus Blue Jackets
It may not be true that the Blue Jackets' marketing campaign is going to be 'wait until next year when we get rid of all these stiffs Doug MacLean left us' -- but it could be. The Blue Jackets have not drafted well, have made poor free agent decisions and then there's the deal to acquire Sergei Fedorov. All in all a mess that will tax Ken Hitchcock's considerable coaching skills to the max this coming season. But just wait until next summer when the Blue Jackets get rid of all those stiffs Doug MacLean left them and they have money to burn.
Nice job by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and current owner Craig Leipold to destabilize one of the NHL's model franchises. Stars Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell have all departed with Peter Forsberg soon to join them in the wake of the team's ownership vacuum. Radek Bonk, Greg de Vries and Jed Ortmeyer will act as stand-ins. Good thing the Preds have a great coach and play in the league' weakest division or else they'd be a lock to miss the playoffs. As it is it will take all of Barry Trotz's powers to keep the Preds in the hunt. A shame.
Bummer offseason for Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe who has oodles of cash to spend but can't get anyone to show up to take it (and we don't count Michael Nylander, now known in Edmonton simply as Forked Tongue, who said he'd take the Oilers' cash and then changed his mind). Even the rare (some might add 'desperate') move of presenting an offer sheet to restricted free agent Tomas Vanek of Buffalo didn't work out as the Sabres immediately matched the offer. The Oilers managed to get mercurial young defenseman Joni Pitkanen who went from favorite son to pariah in Philadelphia last season, and they still have good young offensive talent up front. But as it stands the Oil are nowhere near being a playoff team.
Hmm. GM Doug Armstrong's pre-playoff rearmament plan didn't work out quite as he'd planned as the Stars were bounced in the first round by Vancouver and then he saw Ladislav Nagy and Darryl Sydor leave town leaving the Stars short on offense and growing older by the minute. Defensively sound and well-coached the Stars look to be slipping inexorably beneath the playoff line.
Reports of the Sabres' death may have been both premature and greatly exaggerated, but there's no sugar-coating the impact of the loss of co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. It's going to hurt. But the Sabres remain a team with unusual offensive depth, good to sometimes great goaltending (goaltending that got better with the addition of Jocelyn Thibault as Ryan Miller's back-up) and terrific coaching. Will they win the Presidents' Trophy again? No. But maybe playing with less pressure will allow players like Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville and Nathan Paetsch to evolve more quickly into leadership roles. That said the Sabres will have to plug the big holes down the middle and they have to hope there are new leaders waiting to emerge in that dressing room.
The Stanley Cup finalists from Ottawa have their noses pressed firmly against the free agency glass, but can't get in the candy store because of cap restrictions.
San Jose Sharks
Ditto. The Sharks did re-up Joe Thornton and re-signed under-appreciated defenseman Craig Rivet, but now have to figure out what to do with captain Patrick Marleau, who was eviscerated by coach Ron Wilson during the playoffs.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.