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Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Grading Day 1 of free agency

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

There were a frenzy of signings during Day 1 of the free-agency period. Here's a look at the top deals so far:

The home run -- Parts I and II

Campbell

Huet
• Blackhawks sign defenseman Brian Campbell to eight-year deal ($7.125 million annual average), goalie Cristobal Huet to four years at $5.6 million per season

It wasn't so long ago when Chicago GM Dale Tallon had to practically beg free agents to put on a Blackhawks jersey. When begging didn't work, he paid them way more than anyone else would. Now, Tallon has built a team that has become a destination for free agents, as witnessed by his acquisition Tuesday of the top free-agent defenseman on the market, Brian Campbell, and the top free-agent goaltender, Cristobal Huet. Now, you can quibble with whether Tallon overpaid for either player, but there is no disputing that a team that missed the playoffs by just three points last season has dramatically improved. The Blackhawks ranked 24th on the power play and 20th in goals against per game. Both those areas should be better with Huet and Campbell. Would Tallon like to move incumbent goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and his $6.75 million salary? Sure. But Tallon told ESPN.com he's comfortable moving forward with Huet and Khabibulin as a tandem, even if it means he's got more than $12 million tied up in goaltending next season. "The perceptions are all changed [about Chicago as a hockey town]," Tallon said.
Free-agency grade: Campbell, A+; Huet, A-

The triple

Redden
• Rangers sign defenseman Wade Redden to a six-year, $39 million deal
There's always a danger when you lock in a player to a long-term deal, especially when his game has tailed off. But the New York Rangers' signing of defenseman Wade Redden is a calculated risk. First, when Campbell signed with Chicago at more than $7.1 million a season, the market value for the 31-year-old Redden took a pretty significant jump north. And there are reasons Redden hasn't played as well in the past couple of seasons, including the death of his mother after a long illness and the Senators' attempts to trade him. The soft-spoken Redden will be under the spotlight in New York, but he'll also be playing with a cast that is arguably as talented as the group with whom he played in Ottawa. Redden will be asked to help out the Rangers' 22nd-ranked power play and also be expected to help free up offensive players with quick, smart passes from his own zone. The Rangers were ranked 25th in goals per game last season. If they can make a significant improvement offensively, they'll once again be considered one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Redden should help them get there.
Free-agency grade: B+

The big gamble

Theodore
• Capitals sign goalie Jose Theodore to two-year, $9 million deal
At the trade deadline, Washington GM George McPhee rolled the dice that Huet could deliver his emerging Caps to the playoffs. The goalie did, posting an 11-2 record down the stretch. Now, unable to lock Huet up long-term, McPhee is again taking a chance that Jose Theodore can provide enough quality starts to keep the Caps on track. This is a team that isn't all that far away from making a long playoff run with Alexander Ovechkin, newly re-signed Mike Green, Alexander Semin and rookie of the year finalist Nicklas Backstrom in the fold. But Theodore is crucial to the team's continued evolution. He showed flashes of the old Theodore, the one who earned Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002, through the last third of the regular season and when the Avalanche upset Minnesota in the first round. But he laid a monstrous egg in the West semifinals against Detroit. No matter how you cut it, this deal feels like a step backward for the Caps, a small step perhaps, but a step back nonetheless.

Free-agency grade: B-

The big gamble, part deux

Raycroft
• Avalanche sign goalie Andrew Raycroft to one-year deal
If you're Colorado GM Francois Giguere, you've already got to be reaching for the antacid. With Peter Budaj unable to seize the starting netminder's job in Denver despite several opportunities, Giguere was forced to go to Plan D in goal when he couldn't re-sign Theodore and Huet went to Chicago. Plan D is Andrew Raycroft. The former rookie of the year lasted one season as a starter in Toronto and suffered through a 2-9-5 record as backup to Vesa Toskala last season. The Avs had success rehabilitating Theodore, who'd gone off the rails in Montreal before coming to Colorado. The Avs better hope the trend continues with Raycroft or getting back in the playoffs in a very tight division will become a very real problem.
Free-agency grade: C+

Mountainside Bob

Tucker
• Avalanche sign forward Darcy Tucker to two-year, $4.5 million deal
The man once dubbed "Sideshow Bob" for his histrionics has matured exponentially over the years, so it is a different Darcy Tucker who will pull on an Avs jersey this fall. A proud, gritty player, Tucker will be looking to prove doubters wrong after the Maple Leafs bought him out of his contract in the days leading up to free agency. Tucker, a Western Canadian boy, should help pick up some offensive slack that may be created by the retirement of captain Joe Sakic and/or the absence of perennially injured star forward Peter Forsberg. In 2005-06, Tucker had 18 power-play goals; the mountain air may just reinvigorate him.
Free-agency grade: B-

You signed who? For what?

Finger
• Maple Leafs sign defenseman Jeff Finger to four-year deal at $3.5 million per season
It's not often you see a guy who was drafted 240th overall in 1999 (selected in the eighth round, a round that no longer exists) sign a four-year deal worth $3.5 million annually. But leave it to the Leafs to make that kind of leap of faith with Jeff Finger, who just saw his salary increase about eight-fold. While skeptics will be quick to point out the vast amount of money the relatively untested and wholly unknown defenseman will make, he may end up being just the kind of player the Leafs need. A late bloomer, Finger just completed his first full NHL season for Colorado. He led all Avs defensemen in playoff ice time (22:05) and regular-season goals (eight) and hits (121). He's just 28 and presumably doesn't have a no-trade clause, which makes him unique among Leafs players. If the idea is to build smartly from the back end, then Finger may turn out to be a pleasant surprise.
Free-agency grade: B-

You can check out any time you like

Rolston
• Devils sign forward Brian Rolston to four-year, $20.25 million deal
There's a certain symmetry to much of what Devils GM Lou Lamoriello does. So it was that, in desperate need of offensive help, he turned to a familiar face Tuesday. Lamoriello, who selected Brian Rolston with the 11th overall pick in 1991, brought the forward back to the Devils' fold. Rolston's agent, Stephen Bartlett, told ESPN.com Rolston received firm offers from as many as 17 NHL teams, the most activity he's seen in 22 years as an NHL agent. But while the Devils didn't offer the most money (we are talking about Lamoriello, after all), Rolston's comfort with the Devils' style of hockey and familiarity with the organization was enough to prompt him to return. He comes at a time when the Devils are struggling to maintain their aura of indestructibility. They have not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since winning the Cup in 2002 and their offense and power play ranked near the bottom of the NHL last season. Rolston, who had three straight 30-goal seasons with the Minnesota Wild, will be a welcome tonic.
Free-agency grade: A-

You can check out, part deux

Holik
• Devils sign forward Bobby Holik to one-year, $2.5 million deal
In another retro move, the Devils returned one-time dominant checking center Bobby Holik to the fold. Holik was the captain of a bad Atlanta team last season and has never replicated the successes he enjoyed while with the Devils from 1992 to 2002 before stops with the Rangers and Thrashers. The game has changed dramatically since Holik was in his prime, and his usefulness offensively and as a shut-down defensive center has declined significantly.
Free-agency grade: C+

Long Island bound

Streit
• Islanders sign defenseman Mark Streit to five-year deal
We're not sure exactly what to make of Mark Streit and his 62-point campaign from last season; we're also not too sure what to make of the New York Islanders, who continue to be competitive even though, on paper, they have no business being anywhere but near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. GM Garth Snow will always have trouble attracting top-flight free-agent talent to Long Island until the Isles either build a new arena or dramatically improve the current barn. That means he's got to work a lot harder to build a winner. Streit, then, is a nice addition for a team that is long on work ethic and short on production. He can play forward if need be, but will add some nice jump to a blue-line corps whose top point producer, Chris Campoli, had 18 points.
Free-agency grade: B

Here comes Ryder

Ryder
• Bruins sign forward Michael Ryder to three-year, $12 million deal
Among the handful of reclamation projects that presented themselves during the first day of free agency, few are as interesting as the Boston Bruins' experiment with former Montreal power forward Michael Ryder. Ryder had back-to-back 30-goal campaigns after the lockout, but ran afoul with Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau and ended up being a healthy scratch, chipping in just 14 goals. But Boston GM Peter Chiarelli had seen plenty of Ryder in the Northeast Division, first when Chiarelli was in Ottawa and then after taking over in Boston. He liked what he saw. "He's got a pretty good shot. He's quite a dangerous player," Chiarelli told ESPN.com late Tuesday night. Perhaps more important, coach Claude Julien has a long history with Ryder, dating back to junior. Last season, the Bruins were 24th in goals per game and 16th on the power play, so Ryder will be a welcome addition if he can regain his touch.
Free-agency grade: B

The backup plan

A handful of teams altered their back-up goaltending plans. Here's a look at those teams and what the future might hold for each of them:


Kolzig
• Lightning sign Olaf Kolzig to one-year deal
When the Lightning signed Olaf Kolzig on Tuesday, the assumption was he would act as mentor to Mike Smith, whom Tampa Bay acquired as part of the Brad Richards deal at the trade deadline. Rumors persist the Lightning are trying to move Smith (which doesn't make much sense, but we digress). Kolzig, 38, lost the starting job to Huet in Washington after his game started to slip. It seems unlikely he could log a starter's load with any greater success in Tampa, but he could certainly help in the development of Smith or Karri Ramo, the other young netminder in the Lightning system. He is one of the game's standup guys and will do whatever's asked.
Free-agency grade: A-


Joseph
• Maple Leafs sign Curtis Joseph to one-year deal
Barring an injury to Vesa Toskala, 41-year-old Curtis Joseph isn't likely to see much action in his return to the Maple Leafs. Still, the Toronto-area native has remained physically sharp and has changed his game to stay competitive. Although Joseph saw action in only a handful of games after being signed late in the season by Calgary, if he can deliver 10 or more wins in a supporting role, that'll be above and beyond the call of duty for the rebuilding Leafs.
Free-agency grade: B-


Conklin
• Red Wings sign Ty Conklin to one-year deal
Ty Conklin set the gold standard for backups this past season in Pittsburgh, where he came on in relief for starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who went down with a high ankle sprain. Some wondered if the Penguins would free-fall out of the playoffs; but even without Sidney Crosby in the lineup for a long period of time, Conklin not only held the Pens in the playoff race, but he also helped them to the second seed in the East. His demeanor will fit perfectly with laid-back Chris Osgood, who recaptured the starter's role in Detroit and led the Wings to the Stanley Cup. Watch for Conklin to post excellent numbers again next season in a supporting role. He's a bargain at $750,000.
Free-agency grade: A


Auld
• Senators sign Alex Auld to two-year, $2 million deal
Coming out of the lockout, expectations were high for 6-foot-5 goaltender Alex Auld. But he couldn't deliver the goods in Vancouver before being given a shot at the starter's role in Florida, losing his job to an aging Ed Belfour. After that, there were stops in Phoenix and Boston. As backup to incumbent Martin Gerber, all the Senators are asking is he not sleep through too many practices.
Free-agency grade: C+


Lalime
• Sabres sign Patrick Lalime to two-year deal
Management in Buffalo has started negotiating a contract extension with starter Ryan Miller, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2008-09 season. If the Sabres can't get a deal done, there will be tremendous pressure on them to deal Miller before next season's trade deadline, as they did last season with Brian Campbell. Patrick Lalime isn't a replacement for Miller, but the veteran netminder did show last season in Chicago he still has some game left in him. He has the perfect personality to fill in when necessary and not become involved in dressing room politics.
Free-agency grade: C+

Trade of the day


Torres
It wasn't just the free agents who were busy on Day 1 of the NHL's silly season. The Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers pulled off an honest-to-goodness hockey trade just before the market opened. The two 2006 Stanley Cup finalists, who haven't been back to the playoffs since, both took steps in making sure that trend ends next season.

After acquiring veteran offensive defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky from Los Angeles for Jarret Stoll on Monday, the Oilers added youngster Gilbert Brule from Columbus for Raffi Torres, and then moved restricted free agent Joni Pitkanen to Carolina for proven scorer Erik Cole on Tuesday.

Cole, who played with Cory Stillman and Eric Staal during most of the regular season leading up to the Hurricanes' Cup run, is a proven 25- to 30-goal producer. He will see plenty of power-play time and help give the Oilers three lines of scoring depth.

Pitkanen, on the other hand, gives the Hurricanes a badly needed puck-moving defenseman who can join the rush and help out on the power play. With the acquisition of Joe Corvo from Ottawa at the trade deadline, Carolina now has two offensive defensemen, something they haven't had in many years.

Critics say Pitkanen hasn't developed the way he should have given he was the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft, but Carolina GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com he thinks Pitkanen is just starting to mature.

"I think he's a better player than he's gotten credit for being," Rutherford said.

The Hurricanes also re-signed former prospect Anton Babchuk, another big defenseman (6-foot-5) with a big shot, in an effort to remake a Carolina blue line that lost Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican.
Grade: B+

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.