Tuesday, July 8, 2008
How does East stand up? Potential boon in Tampa; doom in Toronto
By Scott Burnside
Since the start of the free-agency period (noon ET on July 1), almost 90 free agents have either signed with their previous clubs or found new homes around the NHL, signing deals that collectively will pay about $500 million well into the future.
When the playoffs are under way next spring, how many of these transactions will we remember? A half-dozen? A handful? Any?
General managers, many of whom mortgaged millions of dollars and committed to longer terms than most marriages, are banking on us remembering their signings fondly as their teams play long into the playoffs or hoist the Stanley Cup.
|One of the offseason plusses for Pittsburgh? Reaching a new deal with star forward Evgeni Malkin.|
Here's a look at how the teams in the Eastern Conference stack up after a week of free agency. (Check out our Western Conference trends here.)
It's funny how advancing to the Stanley Cup finals changes your impression of a team and its players. On the surface, the loss of Ryan Malone, Marian Hossa, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque and Adam Hall looks to be potentially devastating to the Eastern Conference champs. Yet GM Ray Shero managed to lock in the core of his championship-hopeful team by extending the contracts of Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, and signing free agent Brooks Orpik to a manageable six-year, $22.5 million deal. Although Shero was stung by the departure of Hossa, who opted for a one-year deal in Detroit, he moved quickly to fill the holes on his top two forward lines with Long Island refugees Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan. Fedotenko won a Cup with Tampa in 2004 and Satan is a proven goal scorer. On the surface, the two might look like a step back, but, if you recall the start of last season, Malone, like many of the young Penguins, had yet to hit his stride. By next spring, it's possible Fedotenko and Satan may make Shero look like the smartest kid on the block. Trending: Up
New York Rangers
Although the Rangers have advanced to the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons, there's a feeling the team hasn't met expectations and it will look dramatically different when it hits the ice this fall. Captain Jaromir Jagr is headed to Omsk, Martin Straka has apparently headed home to the Czech Republic, Sean Avery has taken his agitating act to Dallas, defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman were dealt to Columbus, and Marek Malik and Brendan Shanahan remain in free-agent limbo. In an effort to get younger and faster, especially up front, the Rangers acquired enigmatic Russian forward Nikolai Zherdev and two-way center Dan Fritsche in the deal with Columbus, and signed forwards Patrick Rissmiller (formerly of San Jose) and Aaron Voros (Minnesota Wild), which will create significant competition for jobs up front. GM Glen Sather also added former Sabres defenseman Dmitri Kalinin. The two biggest moves, however, are the ones that bring the biggest question marks. Many believe the six-year, $39 million deal given former Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden is doomed to fail. And the two-year, $8 million deal tendered former Vancouver captain Markus Naslund is likewise a significant gamble. Both Redden and Naslund have seen their play deteriorate over the past couple of seasons. If a change of scenery can revitalize both, then the Rangers will challenge Pittsburgh, Montreal and Philadelphia as the top teams in the East. But those are mighty big "ifs." Trending: Up
As expected, the Flyers were relatively quiet on the free-agent front this summer, having done their heavy lifting last summer, when they acquired Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. GM Paul Holmgren brought restricted free-agent forward Jeff Carter, who enjoyed a strong season, under contract and added a couple of useful parts in hard-nosed forward Arron Asham and undervalued Glen Metropolit, who played so well in Boston last season. Ossi Vaananen joins the Flyers' blue line, and could help fill the void left by captain Jason Smith, who remains an unrestricted free agent. The Flyers were the surprise team of the Eastern Conference, rebounding from a last-place finish in 2006-07 to a berth in the Eastern Conference finals this postseason. The expectation is they'll be back in the hunt again in the coming season. Trending: Up
New Jersey Devils
The Devils have looked like a team treading water the past couple of seasons. Relying as always on stellar defensive play and the otherworldly work of Vezina Trophy-winning netminder Martin Brodeur, the Devils have remained a consistent playoff team since the end of the lockout, yet not quite good enough to contend anymore. GM Lou Lamoriello is hoping a couple of blasts from the past may change that dynamic. Brian Rolston, originally selected by the Devils with the 11th overall pick in 1991, spurned more lucrative offers from other teams to sign with New Jersey (four years, $20.25 million). Rolston and his booming shot will be a boon to a team that ranked 27th in goals per game and had the 25th-ranked power play last season. Former Atlanta captain Bobby Holik returns to help the Devils' already strong two-way play. Who knows, maybe the 37-year-old forward will rebound in New Jersey, where he enjoyed the greatest success of his career. Trending: Up
New York Islanders
Ah, the Islanders. They're like the NHL cockroach. Doesn't matter how much they get stomped on by the media -- they keep coming back, hanging around, defying skeptics. This season will be no different as they lost top-six forwards Satan and Fedotenko and replaced them with an aging Doug Weight. On the blue line, the Isles got a jolt of offense from Mark Streit, who hit the free-agency jackpot with a five-year, $20.5 million deal. The only problem for the Isles is Streit doesn't play all that well in his own zone. Still, coach Ted Nolan has proved to be adept at making silk out of sow's ears the past couple of seasons. We expect to see much of the same this season. Trending: Sideways
Toronto Maple Leafs
The most important move the Leafs will make this offseason is bringing in Joe Nieuwendyk to the front office, which was already bolstered with the addition of longtime hockey talent evaluator Al Coates. On the ice? Not as much good news. The Leafs disposed of Kyle Wellwood (Vancouver) and Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft (both landed in Colorado), and have little hope of returning erstwhile captain Mats Sundin. In their place, GM Cliff Fletcher (we can hardly bring ourselves to suggest he is the interim GM anymore) added streaky Niklas Hagman (he had a career-best 27 goals, but just three goals over the Stars' last 14 regular-season games and postseason) and much-ballyhooed defenseman Jeff Finger, who went from relative obscurity in Colorado to a four-year deal that'll pay him $3.5 million annually. And no, we don't believe for a moment the Internet nonsense that the Leafs actually thought they were getting Kurt Sauer. (John-Michael Liles or Adam Foote? Yes. Kurt Sauer? No.) In a nod to nostalgia, the Leafs also signed Curtis Joseph to a one-year deal to back up Vesa Toskala. Still, the Leafs remain a team in disarray. Can anyone say John Tavares? Trending: Down
The Habs remained silent during the free-agent period, although they are still interested in Sundin. Having acquired talented, if soft, forward Alex Tanguay from Calgary at the draft, Montreal will continue to trust in the evolution of a talented group of mostly homegrown players, from netminder Carey Price on out. GM Bob Gainey did add one everyday NHLer in longtime heavyweight Georges Laraque, who played surprisingly well during the playoffs for Pittsburgh. Former Columbus and Tampa netminder Marc Denis also signed on, but his career is in the tank and it's unknown whether he'll end up being shipped straight to the AHL or fight for the backup job behind phenom Carey Price. The Habs aren't quite good enough down the middle yet -- hence their interest in Sundin -- but they're still as good as it gets in the curiously pedestrian Northeast. Trending: Sideways
Wow -- things have gone off the rails in a hurry in the Canadian capital. The Senators bid adieu to Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman, both acquired at the trade deadline for Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves. Longtime Senators blueliner Wade Redden and tormented netminder Ray Emery are also gone. Whatever roles they all played, little has been done to fill the void and put the Sens back on the Stanley Cup track. Annoying (to opposing players) Jarkko Ruutu will add some fun to a dressing room that was a mess last season. Alex Auld will hopefully keep better track of time than Emery, but that's about all the Sens can realistically expect from their new backup, leaving them thin in goal. The blue line is thin, as well, and the scoring depth up front, well, it's thin too. Yikes. Trending: Down
There are two ways to look at the Bruins' three-year, $12 million contract bestowed on former Hab Michael Ryder -- grand larceny on the part of Ryder, who had just 14 goals last season after recording back-to-back 30-goal campaigns, or a brilliant reclamation project for a team that surprised many with its determination in making the playoffs and extending the Habs to seven games in the first round. If Patrice Bergeron comes back healthy and Ryder can jibe with coach Claude Julien (with whom he has a long relationship dating back to junior), the Bruins may have added a key piece to their offense. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli took a run at Hossa, but instead settled for Ryder and former top Phoenix prospect Blake Wheeler, who is still a year or so away from the NHL. Trending: Up
This is going to be an interesting season for the Sabres, who went from two straight final four appearances after the lockout to missing the playoffs altogether this past spring. If fans were hoping the Sabres would make a big free-agent splash, they were disappointed as the team sat quietly and added only backup netminder Patrick Lalime. Buffalo did deal Steve Bernier, acquired at the trade deadline from San Jose for Brian Campbell, to Vancouver and acquired solid veteran defenseman Craig Rivet in a separate trade with the Sharks. But that's all she wrote in Buffalo, where the feeling, at least on the management side, is that the tools the Sabres need to rebound in the standings are already in the dressing room. Still, the natives are restless and the free-agency period has done little to quiet that restlessness. Trending: Down
Tampa Bay Lightning
You need a scorecard to keep up with the comings and goings in Tampa Bay these days, which was sort of the idea when new owners Len Barrie, Oren Koules et al, took over. The team's management has been revamped with former agent Brian Lawton taking over hockey operations with help from new assistant GM Tom Kurvers, who did a nice job in Phoenix over the past few seasons. The group went out and acquired the rights to Malone and Gary Roberts from Pittsburgh and later signed both. It failed to do the same with Rolston, but landed more secondary scoring in Radim Vrbata, who had a strong first half before disappearing in the second in Phoenix. Adam Hall, who played a small but pivotal role in Pittsburgh's run to the Cup finals, also comes aboard. Defensively, the Bolts shed salary by giving defenseman Dan Boyle the bum's rush out of Tampa, a process which tarnished the end result (a first-round pick and a top defensive prospect in Ty Wishart). The Bolts also added veteran Olaf Kolzig, presumably to back up Mike Smith in net or, if Smith implodes, provide quality starts in a leading role. They also signed Mark Recchi, whose best days are long past, but will provide some competition for ice time up front. The team has also managed to collect a nice complement of assets and now has two first-round picks and two second-round picks in next year's draft. Those assets may come into play as the Bolts need to shore up a blue line that has plenty of promise, but not a lot of experience. Trending: Up
No NHL GM is as understated as Carolina GM Jim Rutherford. Yet, at the end of the day, he almost always comes up with a move that makes you go, "Oh yeah, that works" as opposed to, "He paid what for whom?" Needing to upgrade his blue line that will be without Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican, Rutherford packaged top winger Erik Cole off to Edmonton for Joni Pitkanen. The big Finn can skate and handle the puck, and Rutherford is banking on his maturation after a number of years of underwhelming play in Edmonton and Philadelphia. He also brought back Anton Babchuk, who wasn't quite ready for the NHL the first time around and has matured in the Russian elite league. He's 6-foot-5 and has a cannon of a shot. Following a trend, Rutherford stayed clear of the big-name, big-dollar names during free agency, but did manage to add former Pittsburgh defenseman Josef Melichar, who played last season in Sweden. Rutherford also locked up his own assets, keeping useful defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, who played half of last season for Carolina, and Tim Conboy along with forwards Ryan Bayda and Wade Brookbank.
Remember, this is a team that finished just two points out of eighth place and two points out of the Southeast Division lead, so the Canes don't have far to go to get back to the playoffs after a surprising two-year absence following their Cup win in 2006. Trending: Up
The Capitals remain one of the most intriguing teams in the NHL. Are they like the Pittsburgh Penguins, ready to take on all comers with an exciting, talented young squad, or are they still a piece or two away? GM George McPhee locked down restricted free-agent defenseman Mike Green after his breakout season, signing him to a four-year, $21 million deal. But the real issue for the Caps appears to be between the pipes, where McPhee couldn't get Cristobal Huet under contract after Huet went 11-2 to cap off a remarkable regular-season comeback and send the Capitals to the playoffs as the Southeast champs. In Huet's place, McPhee gambled that Jose Theodore has some more magic in his pads, signing the former Colorado and Montreal netminder to a two-year deal worth $9 million. McPhee also snared former Carolina farmhand Keith Aucoin, who has produced impressive numbers in the AHL, but has yet to prove he can score at the NHL level. Still, Aucoin's a center and will get a chance to earn a spot with the Caps in October. Trending: Sideways
Well, at least this offseason, the Panthers didn't trade away their franchise goalie. That counts for something, doesn't it? In his first go-round as solo GM (he was also the Panthers' coach a year ago), Jacques Martin's most important decision might have been hiring his successor behind the bench, highly touted junior coach Pete DeBoer. DeBoer will have his hands full trying to coax a perpetually underachieving team into the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Martin added a proven point producer in Stillman, who has a history of working well with emerging young talent. With Olli Jokinen gone to Phoenix, the Panthers, who ranked 20th in goals per game last season, will need Stillman to return to his 80-point level to keep Florida in the hunt. The defense has been shored up with the addition of Keith Ballard (Nick Boynton also came over from the Coyotes), but this team just doesn't seem ready to do anything but tease. Trending: Sideways
A team that figures to be in the John Tavares sweepstakes next summer did little to suggest it won't be among the worst teams in the NHL. The Thrashers, woefully thin along the blue line (they tied for last in goals allowed per game and were 27th on the penalty kill), added emerging free-agent defenseman Ron Hainsey, although he will be more valuable on the offensive side than in the Thrashers' own zone. Gone are veterans Holik and Recchi, and the Thrashers bought out the contract of defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, even though GM Don Waddell insisted to the local paper just days before the draft he thought Zhitnik would be an important part of the Thrashers' future. Although Waddell was reportedly in talks with a number of top free agents, including defenseman Brian Campbell, he couldn't coax any to buy into the team's rebuilding plans. Rookie coach John Anderson will have his hands full trying to plug the many holes in this lineup. Trending: Down
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.